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Learning debt

Learning debt

TL;DR: Here I propose a new way of thinking about learning: acquiring useful skills and knowledge should be part of our lives. When we stay behind, we should treat it as a debt we made and expect from ourselves (on a personal level) to catch up. When we spend more time on learning, we can treat it as an investment. This approach should motivate us to learn what is needed in the modern world.

The hard problem of people loosing their jobs

A major social problem when we introduce new technologies is that people lose their jobs. A common suggestion (sometimes given in a rude way, what I do not support at all) is that they should re-qualify to some profession in need. In some cases, it is a great idea. I have observed quite a few people re-qualifying to programming. Those are ex-supermarket workers, ex-designers at the construction site, ex-factory workers, etc. They are all (at least according to what they told me) very happy with their choice to become a programmer. Most of them made it in 9 to 12 months. However, before they started their new path, they were up-to-date with computers, could use English quite well and knew how to find some content on the Internet.

Not everyone has this comfort. I can imagine that some drivers or miners might not have at least some of these skills. Without them it is hard to move forward. Here are some examples of skills that may be problematic:

  • Using a computer and browser - for everyone who was asked by their grandma “Can you please teach me this computer?” it should be clear that it is not an easy task to teach someone to get fluent in using a mouse, keyboard, icons, browser, etc. It might take many hours for someone to understand it. BTW Minesweeper and Solitaire were originally added to operating systems to teach precision when using a mouse.

  • Searching for information - it is another skill that seems obvious for those who can do it, but is terribly hard to learn for others. How should you formulate questions on Google? How do you choose the website? How do you find yourself on those websites? It takes time and it is not easy to learn.

  • Speaking English - not a problem for natives, but in European countries older people often do not speak English, and most materials and answers require it. Learning will probably take thousands of hours, but I can’t imagine becoming a programmer without knowing Shakespeare’s language.

  • Ability to learn - when we stop truly learning, we forget how to do it effectively.

It should be understood that for a person without these skills, learning programming would take thousands of hours. On the other hand, for their kids…

The beginning is where teenagers are

Imagine Bob and his son Jake. Bob is a driver with over 20 years of experience, in a situation similar to the one described above. He is worried he will soon lose his job because of autonomous cars. He knows a lot about history, politics and literature, but those skills will not help him in the labour market. He has some fellow drivers who are up-to-date with the technology and will end up well, but he is worried about himself.

His son Jake is in a different situation. He is not an ambitious guy, he is slacking off at school and prefer to play games. He uses a computer for hours every day searching on the Internet for pirated games and movies. They are all in English, but this is fine. He also met some people from other countries on games chat. Just like most of his friends, he has all the skills listed above - mostly because it was just easier for him.

Most work positions, at least in Poland, require working with modern technologies. Many also require some proficiency in English, which is often treated as a basic skill. If both of the guys mentioned before started looking for a job now, Jake would be in a much better position. And if they both decide to learn a profession in need, such as programming, data science, UX, UI design, marketing, etc., Jake will flourish even more.

Learning debt

You can call it unfair, that a person after 20 years of hard work might be worse off than a teenager. Does it mean that this teenager has some special skills and knowledge? I would rather say the other way round - the world moved forward and Bob was left behind. In my opinion (and according to many recruiters), Jake has skills that should be considered basic. Therefore, Bob knowing he does not have them, should rather treat it (on a personal level) as a debt.

A good question is why he didn’t learn these skills before? I talked to quite a few people after 50 or even 40 who couldn’t use a computer. When I asked them why they said that they do not want to invest time in something they do not need it now. It is a very dangerous way of thinking.

Lack of basic skills is like a debt:

  • it grows over time as the lack of one skill blocks the learning of another (like not knowing how to use a computer prevents from learning to use Photoshop),
  • is very dangerous in uncertain times,
  • it is good to pay it off as soon as possible.

On the other hand, learning new useful skills is an investment:

  • creates possibilities,
  • can improve your job performance and increase your salary,
  • can save your time and energy, and as a result you can spend more time on learning new useful skills,
  • some investments might not pay off, but some can be very lucrative.

What should we do?

It is probably not a new suggestion, but what we should do is to keep learning. This is the Learning-Driven way. To be open to changes and to use every occasion to learn something useful. If you see new promising technology, check it out and if it gets popular population-wide, do not stay behind and learn it. The best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The next best time is now.

PS: If you do not like this article or have any suggestions, click the floating button in the right-bottom corner and send me feedback. You can also do it if you liked it 😉 I promise to reflect on it and apply it as long as it is constructive. After 3 negative feedbacks (from different users), I will remove the article - unless they are balanced enough with positive feedback.

What do you think about the article?
Marcin The author of the Effective Kotlin and Android Development in Kotlin books, founder of the Kt. Academy and Learning-Driven, programming trainer, speaker at international conferences, experienced developer.
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