Learning is Never a Waste of Time

Posted by James on Fri 14 February 2014

Do you remember learning trigonometry in high school? If so, you might also remember the moaning...

"This is a waste of time. When am I ever going to need this?"

I felt the same as everybody else. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I was reasonably sure it had nothing to do with sin, cos and tan.

Later I found myself studying a sub-major in Computer Graphics as part of my Computing Science degree. My final project was a real-time 3d engine and as it turned out, 3d computer graphics is almost entirely based on trigonometry:

3d transformation matrix

Yep, it was my old friends sin, cos and tan. All those years later I was glad of what I'd learned back in high school, even thought it had seemed like a waste of time.

These days I work for a proprietary trading firm. When the guys working on the trading floor were in high school I doubt they imagined they'd wind up making a living buying and selling derivatives. But each year when they collect their hefty annual bonus, I bet they're glad they paid attention in maths class too.

So learning high school maths wasn't a waste of time after all. What about English?

"This is a waste of time. When am I ever going to have to write an essay in the real world?"

"Public speaking? Why do I need to be able to speak in front of people?"

Admittedly I'm not often called upon to write essays or give after-dinner speeches. But I do spend a good chunk of any given work day:

  • writing documentation
  • commenting code
  • naming things (which is hard)
  • composing emails
  • authoring wiki posts
  • giving presentations to colleagues

Not to mention writing this blog in my spare time!

I did reasonably well at English in school, mostly thanks to my school-teacher parents who strongly encouraged reading, writing and speaking. I even briefly pondered a mixed Computing Science/Law degree, (which I do not regret reconsidering). So I'm fortunate enough to posess the 'soft' skills required for these daily tasks.

I'm willing to bet that somewhere on your resume there's a bullet point that looks something like this:

  • Excellent written and verbal communication skills.

For some of you this claim may even be true. For others, perhaps not so much.

The IT sector has long been famously inept when communicating with other sectors of business. It is increasingly the ability to communicate effectively which sets an excellent developer or sysadmin apart from one who is merely competent. Suddenly learning to compose an essay or give a speech doesn't seem quite such a waste of time.

But we all know that we were ignorant and arrogant as teenagers and should've paid more attention in high school. What about once we 'grew up'?

While I was busy at university learning the 'hard' skills I needed for a career in Information Technology, I took a part-time job selling video games at Electronics Boutique, (now EB Games). Mainly because I was an avid gamer, but also because it seemed like a step up from my previous role as a burger-monkey at McDonalds, (though I learned a great deal from that job too).

I never even considered that retail involved dealing with people and more specifically selling to people. And being an American company, EB were all about customer interaction and sales.

Over the course of a couple of years as a part-time 'Sales Associate' it became second nature to me to approach people who I'd never met and simply talk to them. Sometimes these people thought they didn't want to speak to me at first, yet we'd end up chatting like old friends. Often they'd even buy things.

Having the confidence to speak to a total stranger, let alone sell them something is a skill that many people will never acquire. Yet in my day job I regularly find myself selling ideas to colleagues and management. As my mind turns to entrepreneurism and start-ups, selling products to customers and ideas to investors becomes a neccessity.

Learning to work in retail seemed like a waste of time for somebody embarking on a career in IT, but now I'm thankful for the experience.

Learning is never a waste of time, even if it is to acquire knowledge or skills which don't seem relevant to our current job, career path or time of life.

My father-in-law Lou was an electrical engineer with a safe job at resources giant BHP. During his tenure BHP decided to implement a new business management system called SAP and Lou was given the opportunity to attend SAP training.

To many electrical engineers learning a new computer system would have seemed a waste of time, but Lou embraced the opportunity. In the ensuing decades he went on to become an SAP consultant and start his own business. Lou has enjoyed far greater success as an SAP specialist than he would likely ever have as an electrical engineer.

Then there's Steve Jobs, arguably the most successful purveyor of technology products in history.

Steve wasn't quite sure what he wanted to do with his life and famously dropped out of his enrolled course at Reed College. But he still enjoyed learning and went on to 'drop in' on various courses which interested him, including one on calligraphy.

What did calligraphy have to do with designing computers? As it turned out, quite a lot:

"If I had never dropped in on that single calligraphy course in college, the Mac would never have had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts." --Steve Jobs

That calligraphy course would have seemed a waste of time to most students of Software Development or Electrical engineering. Yet Jobs took what he learned from outside the realm of technology and used it to approach the humble PC from a new, fresh perspective. He would go on to do the same for almost every other consumer technology device and build one of the most successful companies the world has ever seen.

Learning is one of the most worthwhile and rewarding parts of the human experience. The moment that we cease to learn, we might as well cease to breathe.

Apart from the sheer joy and satisfaction that comes from learning, you never know when a skill that you have acquired will differentiate you from others. Be it as a candidate, an employee or a founder/entrepreneur.

And even if what you learn never ends up aiding your career, it was still never a waste of time. As a teenager my Dad taught me how to maintain my 1982 Toyota Corolla. This wasn't a hobby but a financial necessity - there was no way I could afford to pay a mechanic while earning burger-monkey wages.

A lifetime later on a road-trip from London to Sydney, that knowledge acquired as a cash-strapped teen came flooding back as I lay on a roadside in Germany, changing the brake pads on our trusty Nissan Sunny:

the sunny

When you get the chance to learn a new skill embrace it. It is never a waste of time.

tags: Learning

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