Risk comes from not knowing what you’re doing. – Warren Buffett
I sometimes wonder what the value is in what I do in this blog – how reading and writing and thinking help in any way with the practical issues we face day to day. As Robert Kiyosaki trenchantly pointed out, “A students work for C students, and B students work for the government.” It’s easy to wonder whether getting an education is worth it or whether you’d have been better off setting up in business a long time ago.
And then I learned how much of a privilege it is to have the choice to have an education. I was editing my grandfather’s memoirs and reading about his struggles to get an education in the harshest of circumstances. If he hadn’t pushed himself to study, kept trying to better himself, things might have been very different for those of us that came later.
The thing with knowledge is that it’s a weird sort of thing. When you give it away you still have it. If I tell you something I know I don’t lose anything, I still know it too. But whether or not you know it depends on the way in which you get it.
Most education is about information transfer. In an engineering class, for example, you might learn about relays. You’ll learn about different types of relays and the way in which they’re operated and how they can break circuits when overloaded. But it will mean very little to you if you’ve never seen a relay before or a substation or any of the infrastructure that powers everything around us. I nearly failed electrical engineering because I really didn’t know anything about electrical systems.
Later, when I knew what a generator was and how it was connected a network I understood why such knowledge might be useful. I had a real-world example of a situation that I didn’t understand and the knowledge needed to fill that hole in my understanding had value all of a sudden.
Or in a more general example you only know the value of learning to swim when you find yourself unexpectedly in the deep end.
There are some things you can learn “just in time” and there are other things you should learn “just in case” but the biggest thing about learning is that when you know what you’re doing the risks of doing it wrong go down dramatically. As Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s best to learn from other people’s mistakes.
But we don’t always value knowledge, not unless we understand that we really need it. No one wants unsolicited advice. But when they’re in trouble they’re desperate for anything that can help.
And I’ve found that the exercise of writing has helped in unexpected ways. I’ve written about models and approaches that seemed interesting and, all too often, the next day someone will mention a problem where one of these ideas happens to help. In the writing phase it can sometimes seem a waste of time. But then it’s unexpectedly valuable when a problematic situation comes along.
Perhaps the best way to end is with another quote by Warren Buffett.
“If you are investing in your education and you are learning, you should do that as early as you possibly can, because then it will have time to compound over the longest period.
And that the things you do learn and invest in should be knowledge that is cumulative, so that the knowledge builds on itself.
So instead of learning something that might become obsolete tomorrow, like some particular type of software [that no one even uses two years later], choose things that will make you smarter in 10 or 20 years.”