The Value of Education

Nov 2015


“Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.”

– Robert Frost


“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

– Plato


I’m in university at the moment. I will be for another year and a half. A very common angst that other students feel is that their education has no value. That they’re wasting their time learning lots of things that they’ll never use in the real world. I’ve been hearing similar thoughts from people since high school. In fact that’s the reason lots of people I know never even went to university.

There is a noticeable difference I’ve seen between meeting founders who have and haven’t been to university. Whenever I meet a founder with a promising company who hasn’t been to university, I find myself having to explain core concepts like how boards work and even in some cases basic fundamentals like shares and dilution. When I meet someone who did, they usually already know what I’m talking about.

This isn’t a universal rule. Just an observation. Most founders who are motivated enough will go learn everything about a subject they need to know about. But the problem is that often they don’t even know what there is to know and until about the time they need to know it and use it. Recently I had to explain to a founder how a board worked, literally as they were building one. Why? Because they didn’t need to know about boards. They never learned.

But the reason a formal education has value is because it condenses the information. It shoves everything there could be to know about a subject into a semesters course. Whereas in the real world, often a person doesn’t even know what they should learn about or why they need to know it. A formal education removes both those reasons. It gives you everything you need and says why you need it.

In business, you can’t win if you don’t know how to play the game and know the rules. That’s why education is important. It teaches you the rules. You need to know the rules because you can’t learn how to play chess if you don’t know what all the pieces do. And if you don’t know what the pieces do, it’s very hard to learn how to win.

For example, the en passant is an advanced chess move. It is a secret ability of pawns. It’s not taught to novice players because it’s very rarely they’ll ever need to use it. A lot of the complaints of students sound to me like a person who is being taught the en passant while learning to play chess.

But that’s the point of an education. It’s to teach everything there is to know. Not just what you’ll need. Because even if you never use an en passant, it’s an important move in the game of chess and thus if you’re learning chess, you need to learn it, even though it’s unnecessary most of the time. Because only if you know it will you ever be able to use it while playing.

That’s also why an education and experience is important. Because the value of experience alone is limited without having an education and the foundational knowledge and concepts. Because frequently experience without an education is like playing chess and losing without knowing what the pieces do. So it’s hard to derive any key lessons from the game about how to play it better.

It’s hard for a person to analyse why they lost a chess game and how to win next time if while they’re playing, they don’t even know what all the rules are and what the pieces do. But if you already knew all of that, then every time you play, you improve and learn more ways to win. And those games are experience. Education teaches us the rules and what the pieces do. Experience teaches us how to win and the best way to win using the fewest moves.

An education without experience is like knowing the rules of chess. You still don’t know how to win. That only comes from practice and playing lots of games. That’s why big companies look for people with both an education and experience. They’re looking for people who know both the rules and what the chess pieces do and know ways how to win.

A person with a degree in commerce you know has at least a foundational grasp of commerce concepts and how to build companies. A person with a degree in computer science you know has at least a foundational grasp of computer science and can program computers. A person with a degree in law you know has at least a foundational grasp of the law and how to apply it to solve problems and so on and so on.

A big company looks for an education and experience because they want to throw you straight into the chess game and need to know that you both know what all the pieces do and also know how to win. The more experience you get playing chess, the better player you become. Because chess is our running analogy for life and a chosen field. The better you become at life.

By the time I graduate, I will have completed 32 subjects and know them comprehensively to the point where I would have passed 32 exams. Everything from Economics, Accounting, Law, Computer Science, Programming etc. Each of those subjects is 12 weeks worth of work at 3 hours per week. 1152 hours over 4 years of an adrenaline shot of useful knowledge with learning hurdle. You need to know it well enough to pass an exam about it.

It never struck me before but that is a huge amount of information. That is the foundational concepts and knowing how the pieces work and what the rules are in 32 separate fields. All useful in some way. Without that, I would have no idea how to do a lot of what I’m doing in life. When people go out into the world and get jobs or start companies, their experience builds on that knowledge and they learn how to win. But learning how to win would be very difficult indeed, if you didn’t already know what the rules are and what all the pieces do.

And that’s why education is so valuable.