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The importance of staying current and valuable in a knowledge-based field

I’ve been thinking about the conflict of learning vs. being productive, and the ramifications of knowledge on these aspects as well as a technologists value, which can be viewed as a sum of these. I believe that staying up to date, and always expanding your knowledge area is very important for staying relevant and valuable in the long run. I also believe that businesses should strive to keep their employees relevant and ahead of the curve when it comes to knowledge — knowledge of new teachings and knowledge of new areas.

But at the same time, knowledge does not guarantee productivity or being able to actually deliver anything! In fact, other would argue that spending time learning only takes from the same time pool that could be used for creating and being productive! In the old economy this was indeed very true for most jobs; You were a laboring force, a machine in flesh. But where your muscles could not get any bigger or your stamina not improve beyond a certain point, we now find that your mental ability to perform certain tasks can improve beyond any limits.

I just heard the current world’s #1 chess player, Magnus Carlsen, state that without being able to point out how or in which ways, he was now a much better chess player than 2 years ago when he was also ranked #1, and following this observation it made sense that in 2 years more he would be even better! I think this makes sense for anyone doing mental labor — there is no fixed limit to how much better you can get.

Knowledge = Quality = Productivity

So I want to assert a few things before going further:

  1. Learning new knowledge explicitly lowers your productivity at least while you are learning
  2. You get better aka. more knowledgable at what you do, simply by doing it day in and day out. So no explicit learning still means implicit learning
  3. Being more knowledgable correlates to being more productive

I would suggest that knowledge = productivity, or at least knowledge = less faults = quality = saved time = productivity. So the only reason to not spend all your time gaining more knowledge is that it would leave no time for actually applying it — which more or less is the goal itself in a job situation.

Here comes the twist: The canny thing about knowledge is that the world’s total is always going up, meaning relatively you lose out simply by staying put!

The level of which this force affects is dependant on the maturity of your field (and sub-field), but be very certain that it always exists. This is what excites many people in mental / creative jobs, a changing landscape. But in addition to this force, there is a second force that most often affects your knowledge and its value — the relevance of your field in the world of today, and the world of the future:

Over time most knowledge loses its relevancy in the world; There are some basics that are universally true for eternities, but in general this force will affect your knowledge. If you are a software developer your environment of choice might be taken over by something else and sooner or later your knowledge is rendered worthless. Maybe you have 10 years where you are one of few left in the world with the knowledge, and that makes you very valuable to some parties that — as you — did not stay in sync with the rest.

The golden mean …

By now we’ve established that it is important to enhance your knowledge all the time. You need to constantly take things one level further, or you will be eaten by inflation. If your job was digging ditches this would happen maybe once or twice during your career; that you got some new equipment you needed to learn, the rest would just be about using your body and not breaking it.

But no, working with knowledge is different.

The safe bet, I guess, is to apply some golden mean. This is what most do. Learn something new every once in a while, while truly focusing on Getting Things Done. This works. Its also a surefire way of staying put just where you are. If you are 100% satisfied with everything about your work situation, then fine, go for something that works, and you will certainly be stuck at the dead end you are currently at. Its called a dead end not because it sucks, it can be quite decent, just that it doesn’t take you any further.

… is a dead end

If your ambitions are higher you need to realize how the passing of time affects the value of your knowledge, and you need to ensure you are not lagging behind. I propose doing what you need to do in order to barely not lose productivity and pour everything else into the learning pool. I believe that doing so will eventually increase your productivity even as you are lowering the effort you put into it!

If your ambitions are somewhat high you need to both expand your knowledge across your current field, all the while slowly expanding to new fields. At some point your domain knowledge of marketing gets to be worth a ton more with understanding of psychology. Your knowledge of algorithms gets easier to apply with a knowledge of physics. Your knowledge of economy gets easier to apply with better people skills.

If your field of work is in a knowledge field you can bet your ass it will evolve, and you need to at least evolve with it!