Why More Knowledge Won't Make You More Successful
An entrepreneur's guide to learning for quality, not quantity.
From the time we’re young, we’re taught that knowledge is power. Our education system evaluates students based on their ability to cram as much information as possible into their heads.
Similarly, in today’s startup climate, it’s tempting to think that learning more will strengthen your competitive advantage. And we can satisfy our knowledge craving literally any time of day, through thousands upon thousands of online courses available 24/7 -- digital marketing to blindfolded origami, there’s probably a course for it out there. In fact, almost 80% of U.S. companies offer online training for their employees.
As CEO of my own company, JotForm, I’m no stranger to the feeling that I should be acquiring some type of informational currency at all times. As of the time I’m writing this article, I have a hundred or so articles saved in my Pocket app. I can’t help feeling anxious sometimes, that I might miss a good think piece or game-changing update from my industry.
But, as it turns out, academic performance doesn’t always capture later achievements; and more knowledge might not equal more entrepreneurial power.
Just consider these sub-par students: Steve Jobs had a 2.65 G.P.A. in high school.; J.K. Rowling maintained roughly a C average at the University of Exeter. Both went on to revolutionize their respective industries.
Because what matters is not how much you learn, but the ability to home in and apply what you learn strategically. So before you sign up for another online workshop, here are some ideas on learning with an eye toward quality, not quantity.
1. Don’t just memorize -- utilize new knowledge
Many of us associate learning with being able to recall lots of information. But true learning requires a deeper level of understanding.
Writes educator and The Atlantic contributor Ben Orlin:
Memorization is the frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.
According to Bloom’s Taxonomy, a hierarchy of learning objectives used by K-12 teachers and college instructors, the highest level of learning happens when we create -- generating, planning and producing original material or ideas -- using new knowledge.
That’s probably why the world’s most successful entrepreneurs intersperse knowledge acquisition with creative experimentation -- to immediately put their learning to use.
Consider language acquisition. If you’re studying a foreign language, it will certainly help to memorize vocabulary, but true learning happens when you put that vocabulary to use. For example, when you reorganize those words and conjugate verbs in order to write a letter or express an opinion. As anyone who’s mastered a second tongue will tell you, things really click when you start communicating your ideas in that new language.
2. Approach new areas with a fresh mind
Before learning something new, sometimes we have to unlearn what we already know. Otherwise, we risk falling into the trap of fitting new information into existing frameworks.
That’s why I always advise aspiring entrepreneurs to adopt a “beginner’s mind” -- the Zen Buddhist idea of approaching everything as if you know nothing. It’s a useful tool that led Marc Benioff to buy Time Magazine, and Hooman Radfar to invest in the successful fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen.
Because with a beginner’s mind, you overlook any assumptions you might have, including limitations, and see the endless possibilities.
As Zen Buddhist monk Shunryu Suzuki once wrote, "In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few."
It’s not always easy to effectively forget what you already know, but to cultivate a beginner’s mind, you can focus on questions, not answers; keep an open mind, no matter how much knowledge you have on a certain subject; and consider various viewpoints of any situation. Instead of going with your first impression, try taking on multiple perspectives -- the “yes”, the “no” and the “maybe” -- before committing to just one.
With a beginner’s mind, you not only identify blind spots in your knowledge, you learn to approach new areas with humility and curiosity.
3. Maximize learning for enjoyment
Back when we were children, learning was driven by curiosity. We learned to eat, to crawl, to walk and to talk because of an innate interest. When we begin school, however, learning becomes a chore -- something we forced to do, whether or not a subject interests us.
But by returning to the pursuit of those things that genuinely interest us, we can learn more effectively. That’s why in recent years, researchers have been investigating the science of interest. They’re finding that “interest can help us think more clearly, understand more deeply, and remember more accurately.”
Interests can even help people to overcome academic difficulties or perceptual disabilities. One study found that students who scored poorly on achievement tests but were interested in reading or mathematics were more likely to engage with the textual passages or math problems than were their peers with no such interests and higher scores.
As entrepreneurs, we should focus on where our true interests lie. When it comes to topics of less interest, we can stick to the bare minimum. Or, as I’ll explain below, assign the related tasks or projects to someone who does enjoy the topic.
4. Know when to delegate
Any successful founder will tell you: you can’t do it all yourself. To scale your business and become an effective leader, you must get comfortable delegating. That way, you can focus on higher level issues and areas of maximum interest.
As a rule of thumb, I delegate tasks when I know someone else can do it better: if they can deliver better results in less time. For example, rather than continually educating myself on every UX update, I trust that our designers will stay on top of the latest practices and techniques.
My company, JotForm, was founded on the idea that time-strapped organizations should delegate their online form needs to us. Instead of spending valuable time trying to master coding, our 5 million users can rely on our developers’ expertise in various programming languages, graphic design, and other web-based disciplines. Then, they can focus more time and energy on their organization's mission and goals.
For many entrepreneurs, constantly reading, researching and accumulating information can offer a false sense of accomplishment.
But when it comes to learning, sometimes less is more -- because less quantity can mean more quality and increased efficacy as a leader. So concentrate on areas that truly interest you, try to adopt a beginner’s mind and delegate subjects of lower value and enjoyment. And don’t forget to put any information you do acquire into immediate action.