Updated: Sep 21
For previous generations, there was a tacit belief that once formal schooling stopped, so did education. In the 1990s, the prevailing neuroscientific consensus held that the brain’s ability to grow ceased some time in a person’s 20s. This belief was well-justified within the context of the prevailing economy. Up to that point, possessing only a few hyper-specialized skills, the worker could make a handsome living and retire with a pension.
Unsurprisingly, the neuroscientific consensus has since advanced. There is mounting evidence not only that the brain is free to grow well into adulthood, but that growth can be voluntarily triggered. How? Through focused attention paid to novel stimuli. Or in layman’s terms: learning.
The neuroscientific consensus has advanced, as has technology, and the economy has undergone a seismic shift. There is no longer a pot of gold at the end of the loyal worker’s rainbow. Hyper-specialized skillsets fragilize workers, making them more susceptible to displacement by technological breakthroughs. It is therefore of great personal advantage to continue learning, not only for the continued health of the brain, but for economic viability.
Never before have we lived in a world of such abundant information. Never before have common individuals enjoyed such exposure to anything and everything worth knowing. Knowledge and wisdom from millennia of humankind’s struggles, all available to anyone with an internet connection. It is not merely necessity which drives us to continue learning, but unprecedented opportunity.
According to a survey we, Advantage Research, recently completed with the U.S. general population (margin of error of 5.7%), this sense of opportunity is shared among many Americans. Half of the sample consumes non-traditional online education (for example, Udemy, Skillshare, Masterclass) with some frequency. Seven percent consume educational material of this variety on a daily basis.
In the realm of traditional education, two in five intend to go back to school within a year, and the most common motive is not Covid-related unemployment. While 38% of those intending to return to school cite better employment prospects as a motive, 52% are motivated to learn new skills. Accounting for those to whom new skills are fundamental to directly bettering their employment prospects (i.e. anyone who checked one of the three job/career related responses in the chart below in addition to "Learn a new skillset"), 14% of people want to re-enroll simply to broaden their skillset.
With the acquisition of new skills being the most common motive for returning to school, this survey might suggest that we are collectively developing a greater awareness of the economic reality we now face. Pursuing an education premised solely on employment is notoriously defunct. The degree itself, not the knowledge accrued earning it, is the entrance ticket to the job market. Pursuing an education premised on the expansion of the self, on the other hand, makes not only for a healthier individual, but a far more powerful worker.
When you invest the majority of your time and energy cultivating a hyper-specialized skillset, you experience diminishing marginal returns on your effort. Past a certain point, each additional unit of effort earns you less reward. Spend years eeking out fractions of expansion only for a technological breakthrough to render your entire knowledge base moot. That’s a bad deal any way you cut it, and one with which, unfortunately, all too many Americans are familiar.
If, on the other hand, your energy is invested across tangential and subtly interrelated pursuits, you will build an awareness of fundamentals unavailable to any specialist. Knowing the substructure that connects, for instance, micro-economics with neurobiology, statistics with evolutionary psychology, cooking with audio engineering, you’re able to formulate specific prescriptions on the fly. You’re able to think laterally and solve problems at the level of fundamentals. You’re capable of making a single decision that prevents 1,000 additional, frivolous decisions. Crucially, the rate at which you accrue this ability accelerates as you further broaden your learning.
There are fundamentals that connect every single domain of knowledge. The more closely adjacent two fields of knowledge, the more fundamental territory they share. But that shared territory is not limited to only those two fields. It’s shared with an unknowable number of other fields, meaning that as you build a connection between these two, you are also laying the groundwork for learning in any number of new directions. The more skills you accrue, the faster you become capable of accruing skills; the more domains in which you develop expertise, the quicker you develop expertise in any given domain. This phenomenon of accelerating marginal returns was well understood during the Renaissance, which explains how the titans of that era came to be known for having individually achieved historic feats in as disparate of fields as poetry and engineering.
In the new economy, in which rote work is readily replaceable by automation, hyper-specialization represents supreme fragility. The ability to think laterally and draw connections across domains grows increasingly valuable by the day. Never before has access to continuing education been so broadly enjoyed.
Will you join a substantial portion of Americans, and capitalize on it?