Learning vs. Staying Informed: an Important Distinction in the Realm of New Ventures

Learning and staying informed are two different paradigms for receiving information and forming a view of the world. While staying informed is to some degree a necessary requirement of learning, on its own it is insufficient for dealing with new ventures. People that want to operate in the creative space of new ventures should aim to be in a constant state of learning.

Two different paradigms

We will call the first thought paradigm ‘staying informed’. The name sounds specific to current events, but in this essay it refers to the reception and retention of any type of outside information. Staying informed is characterized by a lack of creative activity and reflection. In this style of thinking the mind acts like a giant deposit box, storing new information so that it can be retrieved at a later date.

It’s easy to mistake a paradigm of staying informed for something more complex. Knowledge of current events, public policy, scientific breakthroughs, history, entertainment, and new technologies give the impression of deep and diversified thought. However, it’s important to understand the limitations of staying informed. Ideas are received, held, and then regurgitated, nothing more.

The second paradigm, learning, is precisely characterized by creative activity and reflection. It has an exploratory nature that strives for a deeper understanding of old ideas in addition to the discovery of new facts. Information is received, but then rather than being held stationary it is turned over, examined, and applied.

A learning paradigm doesn’t blindly accept ideas. It also goes beyond comparing different ideas and choosing one over the other. Learning involves taking multiple sources of information and synthesizing them, trying to make a creative leap beyond the raw material supplied. Learning involves building or refining.

Operating along a spectrum

The two paradigms are not clearly delineated. They exist along a spectrum, and our actions can fall anywhere in between. For example, although memorization is associated with schooling and education it probably resembles staying informed more than it does learning. Memorizing state capitals doesn’t require creativity or a refined viewpoint; it simply requires receiving information and repeating it at the proper time. Activities that require reflection and deduction fall closer to the learning paradigm.

This isn’t to say that staying informed is a bad thing; it’s a very good thing, as long as it contributes to a learning paradigm. All of our learning necessarily starts with staying informed. Memorizing state capitals may not require creativity and reflection, but drawing a thesis about the political relationship between states does. And we can’t begin to develop a thesis until we’ve gathered the necessary information. Thus, all of our learning begins with some measure of staying informed.

Problems only arise if the process stalls and we merely consume information without engaging with it. At that point, the process of staying informed begins to resemble the process of being brainwashed: being fed information from a few limited sources without challenging it or using it to grow.

An important distinction in the realm of new ventures

Almost by definition, a paradigm of staying informed cannot contribute to new ventures or have meaningful insights about them. New ventures (if they are good) exist on the fringe of the possible–they are non-obvious. In fact, not only are they novel ideas but on first glance they often seem like terrible ideas. A way for college kids (who have no money) to waste time? Facebook. Taking your most valuable possession (your house) and repeatedly entrusting it to absolute strangers? Airbnb. In hindsight we can confirm that these ideas make sense, but at the time they were counterintuitive and required a substantial creative leap on the part of the founders.

New ventures are inherently creative endeavors. Because of that, a strong and well-developed learning paradigm is necessary in order to successfully operate in the new venture space.

Startup founders

More than anyone else in the new venture space, startup founders need a learning paradigm. This is a fairly straightforward assertion. As the individuals responsible for building disruptive companies, startup founders are expected to operate on the fringe of the possible. They take well-known information and synthesize it with market demand and creative ideas in order to fashion something new. They reflect on their ideas and constantly work to refine them. If they don’t, they will fail.

Thus by definition, successful startup founders use a learning paradigm when receiving information and shaping their views. The path to a successful venture doesn’t start when you register your business; it starts when you deliberately pursue a new style of thinking, aiming to learn rather than just stay informed.

Venture capitalists

Venture capitalists drastically improve their effectiveness by moving away from being merely informed and moving towards a creative learning paradigm. They provide value in two ways: first, by recognizing successful startups as early as possible; and second, by providing support to founders as they build the company. In the first case, a learning paradigm helps because it allows a VC to recognize things that aren’t yet common knowledge. The practice of creatively synthesizing knowledge into new ideas trains them to recognize when someone else is building something valuable. In the second case, a learning paradigm helps a venture capitalist support founders by taking creative leaps alongside them. If a VC truly understands a company as it grows and develops, the advice that they give and the connections that they make will be incredibly valuable.

In addition to recognizing good ideas, venture capitalists also need to reject bad ideas. Every company that is presented to a VC is pitched as a good idea. If a VC was operating in a paradigm of staying informed, they’d want to fund every company that knocked on their door. Saying no to the bad ideas requires critical reflection and discernment, and that means operating in a learning paradigm.

The modern workforce

Job security used to be derived from the amount of knowledge that you built up over the course of your career. You spent a few years gathering information in your field, became an expert, and then provided value by acting on that information at the appropriate time. This process usually involved learning–you had to grow into the role by gaining skills and expanding your understanding–but the end goal was the knowledge that allowed you to execute in a predetermined role. Theoretically, once you gained all of the knowledge that you needed to fulfill your duties, you stopped learning.

Access to information has greatly increased, changing the way that workers provide value. Information that previously was only accessible through specialized education or training is now often available online for free. Even as the amount of total knowledge worldwide increases, the percentage of that knowledge that is available to everyone also increases. And as workers’ access to information grow more equal, the value that they provide will less often be defined by the proprietary information they possess and more often by their ability to process information. How quickly can they draw conclusions from data? How quickly can they synthesize ideas to create something new? The value of the worker is becoming more dependent on the creative activity and reflective tendencies of the learning paradigm.

As both the quantity of data we have access to and the number of tasks that we are able to automate increase, a constant state of learning will be a requirement for maintaining a foothold in the workplace. Without the ability to creatively explore new ideas and build new things, workers won’t be cost effective when compared to searchable data sets and machine automation. Theoretically, as these trends start to take place in the market and workers have more free time because of increases in productivity, we would expect to see a learning environment develop. However, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The workforce has gained thirty hours a month in productivity over the past fifty years, and twenty-eight hours of those gains have gone towards watching TV.

Damn, that’s scary.

The current trends in news and entertainment seem to be pushing us away from creativity and reflection. Content is designed to be addicting, not necessarily stimulating, and that means we constantly have to work to protect our time and attention. Though it seems counterintuitive, if we want to thrive in the new venture space we need to moderate our exposure to many of its products. We need to be deliberate about the information that we consume, and dedicate time for creativity and reflection in order to cultivate a learning paradigm.

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