Learning to quit

Last autumn I started a part-time Open University course, MST121 Using Mathematics. This week I decided to drop out, a decision that has left me thinking about education and making the best use of time.

I started the course because I wanted to know more science — what little reading I do these days tends to be more about the arts — and I felt I should be more capable at maths than I was. I discovered that although I wanted to know more maths, learning it is a different matter: it takes a lot of time and the process is rarely exciting. It reminds me of a quote from Simon Munnery:

Many are willing to suffer for their art. Few are willing to learn to draw.

Ultimately, although I liked having new knowledge, I wasn’t looking forward to the hours each week studying something that didn’t quite motivate me enough and had only a slim chance of being directly useful in my future.

I’m not saying that education only has value if it provides immediately relevant skills or knowledge. Simply knowing more things — education for education’s sake — can be great, and gives you a richer view of the world.

But there’s a balance, one that becomes more difficult as one gets older. Kids at school ask, “Why do I have to learn about [current dull subject]? It’s not going to be any use!” But when you’re a child you have zero idea what your future holds and so learning about a wide variety of subjects gives you more options and, again, a richer view of the world.

As one grows older, one’s possible futures reduce and time becomes more precious. At fourteen it was entirely possible that my future life could have required a good knowledge of maths (or German or history or English literature…). There was no way of knowing, and many, many personal futures were possible. Why not acquire a good grounding in many subjects, keep the possibilities opens?

At 38 I have fewer possible futures than the fourteen-year-old me. Maybe, at some point, I will need to know maths (or German or…) but having guided my life in a certain direction (whether by design or by chance) and seen it gain a certain momentum, the chances of requiring a whole new set of skills are more slim than when I was at the relative standing start of a child.

To reiterate, I’m not saying education as an adult is pointless. I’m a huge fan of continuing to learn as we grow older. I’ve been a student of some kind or another for most of my adult life. (Continuing education doesn’t need to be formal but I like and need the structure.) But deciding what and how and when to study becomes a more difficult decision for someone who is keen to make good use of time that is increasingly precious.

One must balance time devoted to education against whatever else the same time could be spent on; which use of time will get you closer to where you want to be? If you simply want to learn many things, and have no other demands on your time, personally or professionally, that’s great. But even then you’d still need to choose which subjects to study — if you spend time learning maths you won’t be able to spend it on learning German.

This decision — how to spend a large chunk of one’s future time in learning new things — is difficult.

It’s also difficult to know when you’ve made the wrong decision. I think I’ve made progress simply by dropping the maths course. I’m generally too stubborn and will see projects through to the bitter end, even if that might not be the best idea. Knowing when to quit something and when it’s better to see it through is tricky.

Even in retrospect it’s often not clear which would have been the correct decision.

Ten years ago I was wondering whether to quit the Future Studies course I was on because living alone in suburban Houston was rarely enjoyable. I saw it through, but I still don’t know if that was a better or worse decision than quitting. Similarly, I spent much of the two years of that recent theatre course frustrated and wondering whether I should leave. I saw that through but I’m still not clear whether stopping would have been wiser.

What I suspect though, is that if I hadn’t started either course, or had quit soon after starting, my career would be different now. I’m not sure how it would be different, but both courses, both full time, were, intentionally, diversions from my career. I was able to put off thinking about where I should be headed and try something very different. Maybe the courses would lead to new careers… except they didn’t, and I returned to the same world of websites etc. In retrospect, both courses can seem like major distractions, things which have disrupted the flow of my career and social life and made for an interesting but disjointed decade. Education for education’s sake can be wonderful, but it can also distract you from other important parts of life. You need to know what is important to you, what you’re taking a diversion for, and how you want it to change your journey.

So this is how I’ve learned to quit, and why I decided the maths course, even though it was only a few hours a week, was one diversion too far.

Having many varied projects and ideas is a great thing, and something I (and maybe you) enjoy. But knowing which ones are important, and which others are distracting you from those, can be difficult. I hope that’s another thing I’m learning.

16 Jan 2010 at Twitter

  • 11:28am: @megpickard Can @annapickard explain it to the rest of us? I'm fed up of seeing lots of references I don't fully understand.
  • 11:49am: Speech recognition that doesn't attempt to match individual words, but tries to match every phrase you say to a well-known quote or saying.
  • 04:24pm: @cshirky What @tomcoates said. Shouldn't we be encouraging men to be less aggressive and to lie less rather than women to be more like them?
  • 04:25pm: @holgate Ha, I'm thinking of a t-shirt that just says "What @tomcoates said…"
  • 07:27pm: @tomcoates Yay, welcome back to blogging Tom! Don't forget to add two years to your bottom-of-page copyright notice :)

Music listened to most that week

  1. God Help the Girl (10)
  2. Ash (7)
  3. Stereolab (7)
  4. The Clash (5)
  5. The Velvet Underground (5)
  6. Babybird (4)
  7. Lou Reed (4)
  8. Pulp (4)
  9. The Shins (4)
  10. Traxmen (4)

More at Last.fm…