“Everyone” (whoever that may be) agrees that the key to a successful life of happiness these days is in education. More learning equals more…everything good apparently. Just ask any politician (free college!), most employers (college degree required!), and the vast majority of parents (you need a degree!). So the idea is that more education is good, but what kind of education? You can get a degree in pretty much anything these days.
You have your pretty standard “liberal arts” degree flavors: English, math, history. Then there are the more professional majors: Communications, biology (and all the other sciences), business. That’s just the beginning.
Today you can earn a degree in Popular Culture at Bowling Green State University. If you want to further your studies in this line you can go on to earn an MA in The Beatles, Popular Music and Society from Liverpool Hope University (where else?) in the UK. If music is your thing, but mainstream isn’t, you may want to major in Bagpipes at Carnegie Mellon. If you want to specialize (and some people say you should) then a degree in Bowling Industry Management and Technology (available from Vincennes University) or Puppetry (University of Connecticut) is...pretty specialized.
What happens when your degree in Popular Culture is dated? What if you get tired of running the bowling alley and want to do something else? What if puppetry gets replaced by CGI (it could happen…)? Reality (and well-funded studies) shows that people rarely stay working in the same field they majored in and that they change job and careers. A lot. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average worked stay in his or her job 4.4 years, meaning that new workers entering the labor force today are projected to have 15-20 jobs over the course of their working life.
What Skill Do Your Really Need?
So, what is it that you really should learn from your education? What should be the big take away? Rapid change and the changing definition of what it means to be smart means that the actual information from the courses in your major will likely have low to limited usefulness in relation to what you need to know for your actual job. Learning about and understanding ideas and being able to identify a good idea from a bad idea is a crucial part of a good education, but what is it you need to know to gain, hold, and advance in a job?
There is one critical academic skill that you must master, regardless of your major, if you want to make the biggest impact on the world and experience the greatest amount of success. You don’t need to earn a college degree to master this skill, and colleges and universities don’t specifically teach this skill, but earning a degree gives you more opportunity to practice and master this skill than anything else I know of. The critical academic skill that you need to be successful in a world of unmerciful change is the ability to Quickly and Effectively Master Complicated Information (QEMCI).
Yes, that’s a fancy way of saying you need to be able to learn things, but it’s fancy for a reason.
A world with rapid change is a world that quickly generates new and challenging problems for businesses, people, and institutions. The businesses, people, and institutions that can figure out how to effectively address and solve those problems the fastest are the ones that stay in the lead. Your ability to quickly learn new things means you stay in the lead.
It’s not enough to just figure something out so that you understand it. In order to solve a problem you will need to be able to learn something well enough to explain and teach it to others so that they can help in fixing the problem. You will need to be able to discern what is useful in what you are learning and what is superfluous. You have to be able to make your knowledge effective.
To be able to effectively use knowledge you need to be able to fully and completely understand what it is that you are working on figuring out. You need to master the information you are working on. You need to be able to understand better than average. An average understanding is what everyone around you has. Mastering the information means you are above average. It makes you specialized. It makes you unique. Mastering the information makes you more valuable and makes you a leader.
Anyone (or at least most people) can master easy to understand information. If you want to stand apart, to be more effective, and to make a difference then you need to be the person who is able to master complicated information. You have to be willing to engage with the harder problems. To go deeper, work harder, and understand better.
The Key Academic Skill
QEMCI, the ability to Quickly and Effectively Master Complicated Information, is THE critical academic skill you need to learn and develop from your educational experience. No matter what subject you are studying a core question should always be, “Am I getting better at learning from studying this?” Are you getting faster at figuring things out? Are you learning how to determine what is important and relevant and what isn’t? Are you training yourself to consistently go beyond where everyone else is and really deeply understand and fully know about what you are studying? Are you pushing yourself to engage in the harder and more difficult information than others are willing to engage with?
Do these things and you will separate yourself from the crowd and will earn the ability to make an impact on the world.