The Essential Education: If You Had Ten Years to Learn Anything, What Would You Do?

I can remember years ago having a discussion with someone about the purpose of college. I was arguing that university often doesn’t do a good job of preparing young people for the world of work, and my friend was arguing that I was missing the point. College isn’t about economic preparedness, but about educating people for life. Higher education shouldn’t be subjugated to the needs of the capitalist machinery.

I think this is mostly a fantasy. Like it or not, most people go to school for to improve their economic and social standings. High-minded ideals on the virtues of a broad liberal arts education are mostly lip service.

However, this debate got me thinking. Assuming you were to fulfill that high-minded goal of education, how would you do it?

I find it doubtful that the traditional university curriculum would be the best way to do that. Probably the best way wouldn’t involve an institution at all, but be something you undertook on your own.

What Would Be in Your Ideal Ten-Year Self-Education Quest?

So in this I’d like to engage in a speculative fantasy. If you had ten years, with the ability to support yourself on a modest stipend, how would you give yourself the best self-education in the world?

Admittedly, few people could put in ten years full-time, without working to support themselves. In that sense, this is a purely hypothetical exercise. However, I often find it useful to start with an ideal scenario first, and then make compromises to fit reality, than to start by immediately dismissing things out of practical concerns. Even if a ten year full-time self-education journey weren’t possible for most, perhaps it could be stretched through part-time study or sabbaticals over one’s entire lifetime.

Additionally, I’m going to focus on education purely for the sake of learning. The economic merits of skills and knowledge play no role in their importance. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn economically valuable skills, just that there’s no primacy given to learning accounting over art or finance over philosophy just because the former are more economically valuable.

Specialization, is similarly discountable. I want a broad-based education, deep enough to appreciate the richness of a subject, but not to devote every moment to a single skill just to become competitive in it.

Again, this isn’t to say that those motives aren’t important—they certainly are. But rather that it might be fun to imagine what you would learn if they weren’t important.

Think of this as the educational equivalent to the what-would-you-do-with-a-million-dollars speculation we often engage in to think about what are interests would be if we didn’t have to worry about money.

My Ten-Year Education Plan

Given this freedom to speculate, here’s what my ten year allocation of time would be, with explanations:

Side note: Since it’s causing the most confusion, don’t think of the below list as implying that the study of each of these subjects needs to be done sequentially. Many of them could be studied at the same time. Instead, it’s best to read this list as the relative allocation of time, not it’s exact scheduling.

1. Three years lived abroad, in different languages and cultures.

The first thing I’d add is the very thing I find conspicuously absent in most liberal arts educations: living in a different culture. Travel, moreso than reading books, is truly a mind-expander. Especially if that travel is done with the intention of immersing in a culture and not spectating it as a tourist.

In my three-year journey, I’d spend two full years in a stable location to maximize language acquisition and deep experiences. Preferrably one year in Europe and one year in Asia. South America or Africa would also be reasonable substitutes, based on your own level of interest. This could hypothetically be one year in Germany and one year in India, or one year in Spain and one year in Japan.

The third year of living abroad would be shorter stays over more regions. The goal here would be to get the breadth of seeing a lot more places to miss the inevitable gaps that occur from a more concentrated exposure to a specific country.

I wouldn’t do these three years in a row, but spread out over the decade. Long-term travel is one of the most exhausting aspects of self-education and one of the most dependent on enthusiasm to successfully execute. Feeling burned out by new sights is the easiest way to kill an immersive experience.

2. One year of philosophy.

I think the best approach here would be to take a number of survey courses, followed by some deep investigation into a few of the classics. Understanding Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason or Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is probably a wasted effort if the context is not properly supplied.

Six months covering general courses in metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, philosophy of mind, logic, etc. would be a good basis for selecting which specific works you want to study in more depth.

I would also spend at least a third of the time focusing on non-Western philosophy. This is often missing in a lot of philosophy curricula because the traditions are often not directly comparable. However, studying Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism and other non-Western sources gives a greater sense of how the format of Western philosophy both assisted its development but also constrained it in subtle ways by accepting certain forms of argument but not others.

3. Six months of religion.

This could be seen as extension of philosophy, but it’s important enough that I think it deserves a separate space. One year here could be spent on all the major world religions. Even if you’re an atheist like me, I think this is hugely important because of the incredible force religion has had in shaping cultures and history.

4. Six months on world history.

Following religious studies, I’d spend six months learning world history. Admittedly this section is shallower than I put for philosophy, mostly because history is often learned indirectly through learning about other subjects (such as science, religion or philosophy). However, six months should be long enough to have a gist of the general history of most areas of the world as well as modest depth into a few key threads of history.

5. Two years on math and hard sciences.

I say two years not because these subjects are necessarily more important than philosophy or religion, but because they’re difficult enough that some minimal investment is necessary to learn anything interesting.

I’d probably focus more on math, since having a good grip of math underlies understanding almost all the other hard sciences. Perhaps a year to master calculus, geometry, statistics and discrete math. Another year spent to get a good foundation in the basics of physics, chemistry, biology and computer science.

6. One year devoted to art.

I’d spend a year split between studying the history of art and practicing creating art itself. Probably a month each spent learning the basics of sculpting, drawing and painting, then three months on a more specialized aspect of artistic development, pulled from whatever interests developed in the initial survey.

For art history, I’d spend time studying art from books, but also traveling to museums and galleries to see the art in person. This phase of the project could probably overlap with the third year of travel.

7. Six months on music.

I’d spend six months to learn a musical instrument. Learn to read musical notation and possibly the basics of composition. I think this could possibly be stretched into a year to encompass more instruments or getting deeper into composing, although that would probably involve scaling back on one of the other categories (perhaps art history).

8. Six months on meditation.

I’d allocate six months to be spent on an introspective journey. This would probably be spread throughout the ten years, although perhaps culminating in 1-3 months of dedicated time to some sort of meditative activity.

The goal here would be to more deeply understand yourself from experience, as opposed to from ideas and theory, as would be covered in the more academic sections on philosophy, religion and biology. I also believe that this pursuit would cultivate many of the characteristics you want such as temperance, discipline, patience and equanimity, which are often unrelated to knowledge.

9. Six months on economics and psychology.

I’m spending a lot less time on these subjects than I’ve devoted to others. In part because I feel that they are a lot less certain than the hard sciences, but also more theoretically constrained than philosophy. With hard sciences you can be more confident in the empirical results. With philosophy, you can be more open to the fact that they are speculative. However, I think there’s a lot of merit in learning the basic, relatively uncontested ideas in both fields.

10. Six months on practical skills.

In six months, I’d want to spend it learning the assortment of practical skills you’d want to be a self-sufficient, highly-functioning individual. Carpentry, metalwork, sewing, home repair, basic electrical work and plumbing, first-aid, simple car maintenance and others. The goal here would be to have a minimal competency in a bunch of occasionally useful simple skills, but also to create the confidence that one could easily learn more specialized aspects of these skills should the need arise.

Evaluating My Ten-Year Plan

In the space of ten years, perhaps from twenty to thirty (or perhaps as a retiree, from fifty-five to sixty-five), you could become decently versed in math, science, philosophy, religion, history, economics, psychology and art. You would know how to paint, sculpt, draw, play an instrument, fix a car, build a chair and write a computer program. You would speak at least three languages, although possibly more depending on how you allocated your travel time.

Even in the span of ten years, a lot would still be missing. There’s no anthropology. No literature or film. No architecture or athletics. However, the foundation would still be solid enough to build almost anything off of that in the future.

How Realistic Is This Plan?

This plan, as per my original conditions, is wildly optimistic. It assumes you can focus exclusively on self-education for a decade, without needing to work, support a family or be tied down to a physical location. It also assumes an unrealistic commitment to the higher ideals of self-education, with incredible commitment over a lengthy period of time.

However difficult, I’ve seen similarly lengthed self-education projects work to some extent. Benny Lewis spent around a decade traveling learning languages. Many in academia have spent a similar amount of time focused on a doctoral path that didn’t necessarily translate into job prospects.

What’s different about this ten-year plan isn’t that it’s impossible, but that it’s so thoroughly unconventional, few people would embrace it as an alternative to the more conformist paths available.

Despite these difficulties, some variant of this plan is how I see my own self-education unfolding, albeit with less long-term structure and certainly not a full-time commitment. I’ve already finished much of the travel requirement, and my exposures to many of the topics haven’t reached what I could do in the time suggested above, but they might reach that in time.

What Would Your Plan Be?

I’ve spelled out my hypothetical ten-year education, now I want to know about yours. Tell me what you would do if you had ten years to devote yourself to learn only the things you feel are important to your betterment as a human being.

What would you add that is missing in my list? What would you remove to make room for it? Where do you think I’ve spent too much time? Too little?

Share your thoughts in the comments!

Multiply or Add?

One of the most influential essays for me in starting a business, was this early article by Steve Pavlina. In the essay, he argues that building a successful company comes from a combination of factors (product quality, market demand, sales copy, etc.):

“And let’s say that for each factor there is a range of effectiveness from 0% to 100%.

Understand this: these factors don’t add — they multiply! If all of your critical factors are at 100%, but just one is at 0%, that means you could be getting zero sales, even though you did most things perfectly. For instance, you could have a truly brilliant product, but if people don’t feel secure using your order form, that single flaw could cost you most of your potential sales.” [emphasis in original]

This multiplicative model is obviously a simplification of how a business works. However, it is also a powerful idea because it shows how small improvements could add up and why doing a bunch of things well, but not great, could still lead to lousy results.

With my own business, for instance, there are several factors which clearly multiply. To make revenue from this blog, I need to have traffic, conversion of traffic to readers, a product which addresses a problem people have and belief from readers that I can actually help with said problem.

If any of these factors do poorly, the business as a whole does poorly. Many people I know in this industry suffer because one or more of their links in the chain is weak. I have some friends with a great pitch and product, but they don’t have traffic so they have no business. I have other friends with lots of readers, but their product isn’t compelling enough and they struggle with money.

It took me around seven years to get all the pieces working sufficiently to earn a living. Even a doubled improvement of one factor (no small feat) doesn’t add up to much when the total is low. Two multiplied by $100 is only $200.

Yet, when you get the factors working together, improvements have a much larger base to build upon. Two multiplied by a million dollars is two million dollars.

When Do Things Multiply? When Do They Add?

Although building a business is a salient example of multiplicative factors, there are many other situations where this can happen.

Complex skills like painting or chess have key factors that multiply. Painters must know color mixing, drafting, composition and brushwork. Chess players must know openings, endings, strategy and tactics. A deficiency in any factor can be the difference between amateur and professional.

However, many other factors don’t multiply—they add. These factors are great to have, but they also don’t mean doom if they’re missing. Each word learned in a new language, for instance, has a roughly additive effect on your speaking ability, proportional to its frequency. More useful words add more, but rarely do they completely undermine your ability to speak the language.

Filters or Pipes?

A good rule of thumb for identifying likely-to-be-multiplying factors is that they often form filters in a serial process:

If the efficiency of any stage of the filter is zero, nothing passes through. An online business has many filter-like stages: traffic, subscribers, customers, referrals, and so on. A chess match proceeds from opening to middle game to end game.

Additive factors instead work like parallel pipes:

More additive processes will increase your total effectiveness, but their absence won’t kill it either. Each new word you learn in a language, increases your overall fluency, but any individual missing word doesn’t completely obstruct it.

Most domains of success have both additive and multiplicative factors. The approach you take with each needs to be radically different.

Multiply: Patience and Perfectionism

With factors that multiply, the focus needs to be on fixing weaknesses. If a pursuit has ten multiplying factors and any of them are at zero, then it doesn’t matter how good the others are, anything times zero is zero.

This results in an attitude favoring perfectionism. Manufacturing often works on a multiplicative model (any defect will ruin a product). This has resulted in the widespread adoption of perfectionist manufacturing philosophies of Six Sigma and Kanban. When you have dozens of serial steps that all must be done correctly, you better not have a step that is done poorly.

More multiplying factors also signals a need for patience. This is because improvements are initially constrained by all the other weak stages in the process. You may spend hundreds of hours improving your end game in chess, only to get trounced because you messed up the opening.

Add: Strategy and Specialization

With factors that add, the focus should be on building strengths. Because an additive weakness doesn’t have a negative impact on your performance, you should instead try to cultivate key strengths.

Adding factors should also be done strategically. Sometimes a particular combination of factors will work well together, allowing you to ignore many of the possibilities. I chose to focus on a narrow set of topics in learning and productivity for my blog, rather than physics or art. I don’t need to be an expert on those topics because I don’t write about them.

With additive factors, it’s better to be the hedgehog, who knows one thing well, than the fox, with partial knowledge of many things. The same advice applied to multiplying factors, however, would be disastrous.

Which is Which?

Figuring out whether a factor is a multiplying or additive factor is tricky. This isn’t only because the mathematical relationships with success are difficult to tease out of reality, but because factors themselves are rarely purely multiplicative or additive.

In writing a blog, is social media an additive or multiplicative factor? Clearly it can’t be purely multiplying, because many successful blogs have no social media presence at all. But that also doesn’t quite fit the data because, for other blogs, it is the dominant source of traffic.

The answer is somewhere in-between. Social media can be a multiplying factor, if you’ve made the set of choices that place it in the center of your traffic funnel. If you haven’t, then it’s probably more like an additive factor. Confused yet?

The important thing to remember is that multiplying versus adding is a model which will fit a lot of data, but there will always be tricky categories that are somewhere in between, or act like one or the other depending on the other sets of decisions you’ve made.

Try it yourself. Ask yourself what factors contribute to a goal you’re working on. Now, ask whether each is a multiplying or additive factor. Share your thinking in the discussion below!