What matters more: getting a good education or becoming an aggressive, self-directed learner?

To say a person is educated is to say a person has completed a formal education. George Washington thought it a source of embarrassment that he didn’t have one. But was he a learner? And what matters more? Have we entered a day in which it’s better to say that we learn our living instead of earn it?

Strangely, to be credentialed implies that the process of learning is complete. It suggests that you are somehow permanently qualified. Of course, that’s ridiculous, but what percentage of college graduates do you think are bona fide continuous learners? Many are on education welfare. They read a book a year and call it good. Sometimes it's the formal education itself that gets in the way of learning. Einstein observed, “It’s a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.” But that can be an excuse too.

One thing is certainly clear: The future belongs to learners. Think about the mercurial world we live in and the protean organizations we work in. Who will lead in the days and years ahead? The answer is affirmatively those who have a demonstrated ability for continuous learning. And they may not be the most credentialed among us, especially as education continues to democratize and credentials become diluted. Leadership is based on learning more than it is based on education. But our predominant culture still puts a lot of drag on our learning patterns.

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We want our children to get a good education, but are they becoming aggressive, self-directed learners? Do we model a love of learning at home? Do we discuss issues together? Do we coach our children to apply knowledge and skills?

The connection between learning and leadership is unmistakable. It used to be that for most every problem you encountered, there was someone close by who had seen it before. Not so anymore. Most of the challenges we now face have no precedent. There is no institutional memory to come to our aid.

We simply must acknowledge the individual as the source of productive capacity based on learning. Let me call several witnesses to the stand to make the point:

“I think I’m a learner. I never pretend to know all the answers, and I want to continue to be fast on my feet.” — Jeffrey R. Immelt, CEO, General Electric

“Information and knowledge are the thermonuclear competitive weapons of our time.” — Thomas A. Stewart, business writer-editor

“Most of us only know how to be taught, we haven't learned how to learn." —Malcolm Knowles, education theorist

“To change our way of living, we have to change our way of learning.” — Gordon Brown, former Prime Minister, United Kingdom

“This higher level of anarchy will be exciting, but it will also sometimes be very painful. Entire industries will die almost overnight, laying off thousands, while others will just as suddenly appear, hungry for employees. Continuity and predictability will be the rarest of commodities.” — Michael S. Malone, business writer-editor

“If people don’t keep learning, improving, knowing what the next issues are and continuing to be educated, they are going to fall behind.” — Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor, Harvard Business School

“First we create our structures. Then our structures create us.” — Winston Churchill

“If your mind’s not open, you’re not going to be able to engage in an innovation process.” — A.G. Lafley, former CEO, Proctor & Gamble

“Command and control — I love it, I know how to make it work. But that’s not the future. It’s not where productivity is going to come from and it isn’t the way that you’re able to move with speed and skill.” — John T. Chambers, CEO, Cisco Systems

“In a time of drastic change, it is the learners who inherit the future. The learned usually find themselves equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” — Eric Hoffer, American social writer

“Leaders must learn something new. Before anyone else changes, leaders must overcome their own cultural assumptions and perceive new ways of doing things and new contexts in which to do them.” — Edgar Schein, professor, MIT

“The hardest thing about being a leader is demonstrating or showing vulnerability.” — Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks

“People cannot be separated from their knowledge, skills, health or values in the way they can be separated from their financial and physical assets.” — Gary Becker, Nobel Prize winner

I rest my case.

Timothy R. Clark is the founder of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has just been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: