March 29th, 1961, South Africa: A historic trial was underway, centering on giving Africans (blacks) the same basic human rights as Afrikaans (white nationals). When the question of giving blacks the right to vote arose, presiding Judge (Judge Rumpff) asked the defence lawyer, Nelson Mandela, “What is the value of participation in the Government of a state of people who know nothing?”
Undeterred by this blatant racist (yet legal) position, Mandela replied, “To a narrow-thinking person, it is hard to explain that to be “educated” does not only mean being literate and having a B.A., and that an illiterate man can be a far more “educated” voter than someone with an advanced degree.” *From “Long Walk To Freedom” by Nelson Mandela
As Mandela pointed out in a courtroom sixty years ago, education isn’t only defined by what one learns in a classroom or earn a degree from; education is earned from making the whole world into a classroom, and seeing each experience we have as a lesson. It’s a position Mandela frequently reiterated to his fellow prisoners during the eighteen years he spent incarcerated at Robben Island. (Note: Mandela spent twenty seven years total in different prisons)
When it comes to defining education, if you can’t trust Nelson Mandela’s point of view, then whose can you trust?
As Mandela pointed out, there are many factors that can contribute to an education; it’s really just a matter of how we define it, and how we choose to achieve it. For example, I’ve had a successful business career, travelled the world, enjoyed some truly amazing life experiences and spent time with some very nice people. Oh, and I get to be Dad to a terrific guy who has some unique challenges.
But here’s the thing: And while I consider myself an educated individual, I achieved these things without a University degree; actually, without even a high school diploma.
My education comes from studying topics that (a) I’m interested in, or (b) fulfil a want or need I have, or (c) demonstrate what to do/not do in the future. Examples are (a) reading autobiographies, (b) taking personal finance courses, or (c) slamming my finger in a car door. As I experienced each of these things, I learned something (Okay, with (c), it took several times to glean the lesson). So how’d it all work out?
Career-wise, I’ve been in hotel and restaurant management since I was 23 years old. I eventually moved up to a corporate level as both a director and consultant. As an entrepreneur, I have owned and operated restaurants (two fails, one success), and have facilitated courses and given seminars for hundreds of business people at corporate events. I’ve also written/published a book which has been both well read and reviewed.
To be clear, I say these things not to impress, but to impress upon that if a guy like me could learn to do these kinds of things without a formal education, then anyone can. Regardless of how it’s acquired, every education requires two things: A burning desire to learn the subject at hand; and a willingness to do the required work to learn it.
You see, my early academic failings weren’t due to a lack of motivation, stupidity or laziness; I was not, nor ever have been, unmotivated, stupid or lazy. I simply had no desire to learn the topics being taught, so I didn’t commit to learning them. Besides, at seventeen years old, who is truly passionate about calculus or philosophy? I sure wasn’t.
Instead, my informal education began on at the restaurant where I washed dishes on weekends. Anytime the dishes were all caught up, I’d ask the boss what else I could do, so he taught me to cut and chop vegetables like a pro. I got so good with a knife, he moved me to the prep area full time. Then, whenever my prep was done, I’d ask for new tasks to learn so he taught me how to use the grill, the stove top and the fryer. In cooking I found something I truly enjoyed, and was inspired to learn more.
Eventually I wanted to learn (and earn) more, so I enrolled in culinary school and busted my hump for a year. Afterwards -with a freshly minted diploma in hand- I approached the head chef at the best restaurant in town and begged him for a two-week trial. He said no; so I offered to work for no pay, and no drama if it didn’t work out… How could he refuse?
Fourteen days later I was on the payroll, and Chef Hiro became my very first business mentor. He encouraged me to study cookbooks to learn new techniques, so I did. When I wanted to understand the business end of the restaurant, I began reading business books. When I was promoted to kitchen manager, I studied books on entrepreneurship and leadership.
Whenever I was in my career, I looked for books to provide me with the education I needed. But that’s not all. I also began attending seminars by famous entrepreneurs and/or authors of the business books I read. I’d listen to what they said, and when applicable, followed their advice.
I’ve used this method for the past thirty years to educate myself in areas like travel, history, personal finance, business, leadership, management, parenting, simple living, and more. Hence why I believe that learning something is simple; it’s simple, but not always easy. Here’s why:
To learn something, we must first want to learn it, and then do the work required to learn it. There are no shortcuts. We also can’t complain, or make excuses, or place blame on why we can’t learn it. This is why having a desire to learn our topic is critical. When we have desire, the next steps come automatically.
Unfortunately, these days there seems to be a plethora of excuses standing between our youth, and their getting an education.
If kids show the slightest sign of difficulty in class (like I had) society often labels them with a “learning disability” and tells them they are (a) incapable of learning and (b) it’s not their fault, so don’t feel bad. If this is what we are teaching teenagers, how do we ever expect them to learn to function in society as adults? Short answer: They can’t.
Enabling youth with excuses, watered-down curriculums and Ritalin debilitates their chance to lead normal, productive lives as adults, especially if they believe (or take advantage of) such excuses. But as my own path has shown, it doesn’t have to be this way.
I agree with Mandela: Universities aren’t the only place to earn an education; we also learn from our experiences, the books we read, the places we visit, the songs we listen to, the people we talk with, the situations we find ourselves in, the things we do, the things we don’t do, our successes, our failures… all of it.
We learn best by living our life with a purpose, taking advantage of opportunities that align with that purpose, and drinking in all the lessons along the journey.
Especially when the lesson is to remove our fingers before slamming a car door.
Author Bio: David Knapp-Fisher
As founder of The Inspired Humans Project, David loves sharing inspirational stories. His TEDx talk, “Discipline or Regret, a Father’s Decision” been viewed over 112,000 times, and his book, “Punch Failure in The Face, The Buy It a Beer” has 37 five star reviews on amazon.ca.
David lives in Victoria B.C. and spends most of his time trying (& usually failing) to stump his son with movie trivia or planning his next big adventure; both while drinking great coffee, of course.
Laurel Weeks says
Excellent perspective. So true!