“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.”
― Isaac Asimov
Every human is born with a super power: the ability to learn. Everything you know is learned. Like all important endeavours, a lifetime of learning merits some planning. We will classify the types of learning and then explore the effective use of your super power.
In very broad strokes, learning can be split into two categories: Just-In-Time and Just-In-Case. School is the perfect example of Just-In-Case learning. You are asked to do algebra, read Chaucer and argue against a geocentric universe. Don’t you dare ask why. There is no reason. Or the reason is in some distant future that probably isn’t going to happen anyway.On the other hand, work is an example of Just-In-Time learning. On your first day, you have no clue how to do the job. So you watch, and you copy and you finish the task. Why are you learning? To get the job done because your livelihood depends on it. The rewards are very concrete.
At the heart of this split is the question of value. When will this learning pay off? Just-In-Time learning creates immediate value. You’re learning to surf because you have a vacation booked in two weeks. You’re reading a book because you have a book club meeting to attend. We will consider value as simply something that you want to have. The thing can be enjoyment, fun, fame, money, or appearing attractive. Whatever floats your boat. Just-In-Case learning is a risky delayed value proposition. You’re not certain it’s going to pay off. Will studying algebra make you attractive to the opposite sex? Only time will tell.
Now if you’re reading to figure out which is the One True Way, I’m going to disappoint you. Neither Just -In-Time nor Just-In-Case is better. Schools preach only Just-In-Case methodology. Work argues exclusively for Just-In-Time chops. Both are lying to you.
The optimal strategy comes from sound investment principles: diversify. Like investing, allocating your capital across different asset classes with different risk/reward profiles tends to maximize return while minimizing risk. [Intelligent Asset Allocator]
Just-In-Time learning is like buying bonds. Safe investments that gives a very predictable reward. You know what you need to know. You learn it. You get the pay off. It’s all money in the bank.
Just-In-Case learning is more risky, like stocks. You learn something and expect a future reward. The future comes and you guessed wrong. D’oh. However, once in a while you run across a problem that is solvable by something you learned Just-in-Case. You bust out your mental tools and annihilate the offending issue. Everyone looks at you in bewilderment and think that you must be a goddamn genius. Boom. Just-In-Case learning. The beauty of Just-In-Case is most stunning when applied to notoriously difficult subjects like mathematics, programming or writing. Achieving mastery in each field requires an inordinate amount of time. When you run into a thorny programming problem, you can’t run off for 10 years to self educate.[Teach Yourself Programming in 10 Years]
It’s up to you to determine the right mix of risky versus safe investments I suggest using Just-In-Time learning until you are generating enough value to sustain your lifestyle. Then invest in Just-In-Case learning and swing for the fences.