Today we need to learn how to learn. Knowledge makes itself obsolete very fast.
Most weeks I'm teaching in one way or another, weather it be in a class room environment ore in the field. Recently I was in the field teaching some engineers. I asked them, “How often do you have to go back to school?” And they said, “Every other year, at least, to keep up with the changes. And every three or four years, we go back to relearn the basics, or we’re obsolete.” And these are not high-tech people mostly. They are mostly people in traditional industries—a lot of automotive, a lot of aviation, a lot of machine tools. And yet this knowledge changes so fast. And the same is true of the physician or any other knowledge worker. Some close friends are nurses, and they have to go back to school at least once every year for several weeks, and every three or four years for three months, or they’re hopelessly behind. This is something fundamentally new in human history. And it means that the most important thing to learn is how to learn—the habit of continuous learning.
Add to this that knowledge is effective only if specialized. I have a friend who recently undertook surgery on his knee. The surgeon who worked on him did nothing else but the type of surgery he needed, he was a expert in his field.
At the same time, as you go up even a little bit in organizations, you increasingly will have to relate your specialization to the universe of specializations. The orthopedic surgeon who will do the knee surgery told me that he’s now taking a course in physical therapy. He is not going to become a physical therapist, but it’s changed so much in the last few years, and he has to know enough that he can tell his patients what they need to do. And, again, this requires the ability to continue to learn.
Working life has extended so much in the last 50 years that it exceeds the life expectancy of even the most successful businesses. Very few businesses are successful for more than 25 or 30 years. And yet most educated people who go to work in their early twenties will keep on working until they are 70. And so they had better be prepared for a second career, whether it’s in another organization where they’re doing what they have been doing or in a new line of work. They must be prepared to learn again. They must be prepared to position themselves. They must be prepared to want to learn—to see it not as something they need to do, but as something they enjoy doing. They will have to learn how to learn. They will have to have acquired the habit of learning.
In a knowledge society, education has to be the way for everyone to find what he or she can excel in—to set a standard and not just meet it.