Why you’ll keep getting smarter when you graduate school and start working

I love school.  I love to learn new about new things and how there’s always something you can know more about.  That was one of my favorite parts of college–being able to sit in a library, pick up any book, and find out something I never knew before.

I think, societally, we’ve developed this idea that schools are our only learning hubs.  And, sure, I don’t know if any other places have so many diverse subject matter experts and books in such small radii, but I don’t like that we often believe that the only place you can learn is school.

As I graduate this fall, I’m basically trying to figure out my next moves: what I want to go to school for next, where I want to work, and what I want to do (and attempt to enjoy life every once and a while with a vacation).  Like the origins of many existential ideas, I was thinking about this in my car on the drive to work: what’s the real difference between school and work?  Why do you need school before you can work?  Do you need school to continue learning, or does learning come in many forms?

That, friends, spawned an inner dialogue that pervaded the whole trip–and it’s an hour long drive.

School gives us the foundations for what we need.  To understand higher level concepts that you’d learn while working, you need to start with a bunch of relevant topics and work your way up.  Take molecular biology: you need to understand organic chemistry, cell biology, and calculus to get a grip on the subject.

Someone explained to me that building your knowledge base is more like building a pyramid than a ladder: when you solidly learn all the basics you need, you can become more and more specialized as you reach the top.  Your foundation is strong, and you have a broader wealth of knowledge beneath you as you climb the pyramid.  Conversely, ladders aren’t very steady; if you had a ladder instead, it could easily topple over if you lost your balance (or, in this case, went outside your subject matter element).

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But, at some point you’re done with formal training.  Like this picture, you have a bunch of knowledge clusters and you’re ready to put it to use.  That’s where working comes in.

When you’re working, you’re not only revisiting concepts you learned in school (assuming you’re doing something related to what you studied), but you’re connecting everything you learned beforehand.  You’re becoming smarter, because you’re starting to understand why you took a class in X or had to do a lab in Y.  You’re making new connections based on your previous knowledge, and you’re using these connections to solve meaningful problems in your job.

I took this class last year about how people learn; when you’re “passively learning,” you’re reading books or listening to lectures.  You’re not really retaining a whole lot, because you’re not engaging your brain.  It’s like your brain is a river bed, and the information to be learned is the flowing water.  Your brain isn’t getting a lot of time to interact with the information, so it isn’t going to remember it as well.  But, now pretend you’re a river bed in the water is moving more slowly.  Now, you have more time to interact with every water molecule.  This is the rough equivalent to “active learning”: solving problems, having discussions, and applying what you’ve learned.

When you start working, you’re making new connections to the seemingly random knowledge from school.  You gain an understanding for why you learned what you did, and you’re able to appreciate your discipline and its complexity.  And the more you’re exposed to as you continue working, the more connections you’ll form.



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