Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The courage to learn

Cary Millsap recently had a great post on the use of active vs. passive voice when writing. Check it out, it's an excellent read.

Anyway, Cary made a reply to one of the comments he received that has sparked much thought on my part. His statement was:
Learning is a state transition between not knowing something and knowing it. For someone to truly learn, he has to have the courage to admit—at least to himself—that there's something he doesn't know. Some people are unwilling to do that.

Think about that for a second. What do you think? Is the capacity to learn rooted in the ability to simply admit there is something you don't know?

I think Cary's spot on with that assessment. I do believe that fear of admitting what you don't know holds you back from learning/knowing what you need to. It's like having blinders on. I prefer to believe it is fear based and not arrogance, but I think arrogance is at the heart of many people's unwillingness to seek out knowledge. I mean, what if they're proved wrong about something they've stated as truth? If you think yourself an "expert" and your ego can't stand the hit it would take if you are proven wrong, aren't you destined to be found lacking knowledge you claim to possess at some point?

Although I can't find the exact quote, I remember reading something to the effect of "A wise man knows he doesn't know everything." For me, my personal goal is to be continually in the process of learning. I love to learn. Sometimes the process is painful or embarrassing when I state something I believe to be fact and am shown that my information is either lacking or just plain wrong. But, even then, I'm glad to learn. Without coming under critique, how do I confirm what I claim I know? In the end, it's empowering for me...and humbling too. I like knowing and I like sharing what I know. But in order to know, I have to first learn. And I think that learning is the real thrill for me. Sharing what I learn is just icing on the cake.

I think it's easy to get complacent and not seek out new knowledge. Many times I see people who do basically the same job and see the same issues day after day, month after month. It's easy to get lazy. It's easy to turn around and your company is considering implementing Oracle 11 and you've never bothered to learn anything more than you knew when you learned back in Oracle 7. It's easy to assume that once you know something, that knowledge stays fixed and there's no need to "upgrade" that knowledge.

For me, I do what I do because not only do I like to mentor and teach, but I primarily love to learn. My first job was in the government sector. I was the new, young kid working with a bunch of guys who had been at their jobs for 20-30 years. When I finished projects ahead of my allotted time, they'd chide me. They told me I needed to learn to "take it easy" and that I "wasn't in school anymore" and didn't need to complete my assignments in record time or try to impress my professors. I just needed to sit back and relax and learn to "not tax my brain". I tried (for a very short while). But, I stagnated. I couldn't stand sitting still. I couldn't stand not learning and not doing more than just what I knew. I wanted more. I wanted challenge. I wanted to expand what I knew so I could do my job better and more efficiently.

In the end, I stayed in my first job for less than a year. And, I know now as I look back, it was the simple fact that I wasn't learning that prompted me to leave. I grew bored and uninterested in my job and I just couldn't stand it.

It takes courage to be a learner. It requires effort. It requires being willing to admit there's a lot I don't know. But I know for me there's no other choice. Learning is like a drug and I'm an addict.


Bundit said...

We may feel eagerness when firstly switching to new job, but then what..the same feeling will happen. However the technologies (e.g. your blog posted) can help me and encourage my enthusiasm to learn what I never know and apply them on my workplace. Thanks for your informative post.

John Brady said...


I fully agree with your points about constantly learning, but would go even further. Other very important factors include having an open mind, and not being afraid to make mistakes and fail, and not being afraid to be seen to fail.

The concept of learning more from your mistakes than your successes is generally well known. Though many people still try and avoid mistakes as much as they can.

There is a story from years ago about a senior IBM manager running a major project which failed. He expected to be fired when brought in front of his manager. But instead the manager said 'Why would I sack you when I have spent all this money and you now know all about the issues to avoid on large projects? You are my most experienced manager now.'

I try and be open minded, and assume nothing all the time. So I am constantly re-evaluating any assumptions I might make, or things I take to be fundamental facts. I can accept 180 degree changes in viewpoint on things, based on the real evidence I have, because I have an open mind. It also does not mean I was wrong before necessarily. It is just that my understanding has moved to another level, as it were.

I also try and take the opposite viewpoint as often as I can.

'What if it is not a problem with slow I/O, but a poorly optimised SQL statement? What evidence is there for it being one and not the other?'

Which brings me back to being open minded. A closed minded person would say 'It has always been poor I/O whenever I have seen this before, so it must be poor I/O now too. Let's focus on the disk access times.' And not bother to verify any of this by looking for supporting evidence one way or another.

It is easy to teach an open minded person - they can be like a sponge always wanting more. Always willing to hear a different spin on something that they have covered before. But a closed minded person reaches the point where they assume they know enough, and do not want to hear any more on that topic.

Database Performance Blog

Karen said...


Well said! Open mindedness is surely key. I read once that to practice open minded thinking you must always allow for the possibility that everything you know/believe may not be true. That's very hard to do, but I think it is not only the way to open our minds, but our eyes as well.