The Compound Returns of Learning, Sharing, and Planning

By October 12, 2013Learning

We can think about learning in terms of making an investment — the mechanics of that investment paralleling in many ways those of financial capital. Now, I know It’s often phrased in these terms, that learning is an investment in your future, and college graduates earn more, and so on. But I don’t think people tend to focus on the right things where learning-as-investment is concerned.

Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how it’s important to invest as much as possible early on, since the returns of that investment will compound greatly over time. It takes a lot of time and dedicated effort to read books every day, or to make writing a regular habit, or to prioritize participating in discussions and communities that are relevant to your interests — but I don’t think of any of these things as a time-sink (or at least I try not to!) These activities are better thought of as ones that will add value down the road; they increase the expected value of your future time remaining on earth, so as I like to see it, the time you spend learning and improving yourself actually isn’t “spending” time at all — it’s investing it, consciously using it now so that down the road you’ll have, if not more of it, a better experience of it, which is in a certain sense the same thing. Keep in mind that the important thing to measure is not time per se, but something like the product of “time” and “quality”.

Accepting this postulate, it’s an interesting exercise to try to prioritize the component activities of everything falling under the umbrella of learning, self-improvement, or any other sort of investment in yourself that will add greater value to your life later on. In basic terms, anything that offers fleeting and forgettable pleasures is out, while anything that changes you for the better with some degree of permanence is in. My intuition would be that reading is near the top; assuming you read about important, challenging, and interesting topics, you’ll gain permanent knowledge and tools for thinking, problem-solving, creativity, and understanding the world. Anything that helps you clarify thought processes is high on the list, so I’d argue that writing is incredibly important, right up there with reading, because the very act of writing is valuable insofar as it helps you distill and clarify your thinking — and as a side benefit, it turns those internal gyrations of your mind into shareable form, making it easy to spread value (assuming you write things of value), which itself is an act of investment which can reap you great benefits later.

Which brings me to another thing well worth substantial time investment: generosity, sharing, conversing, communing, involving — participating in mutually-beneficial activities with other people. This is so important that perhaps is should even be first on the list. It’s a bit harder to enumerate and define what specific kinds of interactions have most value, so I’ll leave it general for now. But the idea is that interacting with others to think and solve problems and create things can have beyond-multiplicative effects, outsize results. Bringing together perspectives results in unexpected combinations, which can generate new ideas more easily that one person can alone. What’s more, providing value to others (not necessarily in collaborative terms; even as pure act of generosity) helps to weave tighter the social fabric, and can add meaning and joy to others’ lives. This can be enormously beneficial for you as well, as that added value is likely to return to you. The “you reap what you sow” karmic attitude may be a vague way of phrasing it, but the idea behind it is absolutely true, and in a very tangible way.

One further important thing you can do that counts as an investment: I suspect that meta-level processes, such as planning or coordination, are a lot more valuable than they might superficially seem to be. It’s important to regularly remove yourself from the inertia of your day-to-day and question the high-level motivations and unexamined forces that guide your actions, so that you’ll have better insights into your own goals, interests, passions, and skills. By occasionally giving yourself space to think about these things on a higher level you’ll be able to more accurately assess your current trajectory and regular patterns of action, and thereby become more easily able to exert control over your own life. We fall into routines, but it’s amazing how flexible life can be when we think about it — for anyone blessed with good health and a moderate level of financial security, it’s fairly easy to change huge aspects of our life, or its very trajectory, in very little time. And of course, similar to how value compounds, small changes in trajectory can accumulate over years to result in huge changes.

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