Being productive does not make us learn more. We merely have a tendency to correlate productivity with learning because we live in environments that continually encourage us to be productive for the supposed good of our own.
As professionals or students, we are misled to believe that we will achieve personal growth simply by yielding more outcome. The dangling prospects of better grades or higher salary motivate us to chase higher productivity, but also give us false impression of what it really means to learn and grow.
By looking at the definition of words, it is easy to see why the concepts of being productive and learning are often unjustly associated. Being productive means to produce more output in a given time. The implied hard work here seem to suggest that there has to be some learning in the process. Yet any learning in this case is superficial at best, because working hard and efficiently only takes us so far as to optimize ourselves for producing the desired outcome. To me that is not at all equivalent to learning.
For instance, as a programmer, I do not learn much on my most productive days. In fact, it is the days in which everything seems falling apart that I can affirm to myself that I have learned something. When I fall on those chaotic days marred by unfamiliarity, I simultaneously rise to the height of my intellect. The peaceful days spent weaving together familiar technologies to smash out features do not warrant such highs. On such peaceful and productive days, I may create more value for whom my work concerns, but I fail to advance my knowldge in any meaningful way.
Nonetheless, our environments make us believe those productive days are to the benefit of our own by continually applauding exceptional output. It extols productivity and castigates any digression. Yet high outputs are not lauded because it brings about personal growth, but because they benefit the stakeholders’ interests. Our being productive is encouraged in so far as it can help yield measurable output in a cost effective manner. Such confrontation with cold and calculated reality makes one thing clear—no one but ourselves can look after our lifelong mission of learning.
To really learn in our everyday environments, we need to be a little selfish, at least enough to throw ourselves into the sea of unknown, against the will of the environments that tacitly denies our attempts to do so. The learners within us call for a rebellion against the milieu that treats productivity as the supreme good. Yet sadly those learners perish within us gradually. For when we mindlessly proclaim that productivity is synonymous with our personal growth, we stop learning. For when we aim to produce more as if solely for our own benefit, we live in the theater of learning without actually learning.
In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield fails an oral examination in which a student is required to make a speech and other students are supposed to yell “digression!” when the speaker digresses from a topic. It drove him crazy because he doesn’t like it when somebody sticks to the point all the time. “You’re supposed to leave somebody alone,” he reflects, “if he’s getting all excited about something.”
Are we not prematurely yelling “digression” to learners within us craving something new, all in the name of staying productive? Caulfield’s teacher instructs students to unify and simplify all the time. Yet, as Caulfield puts it disobediently, “some things you just can’t do that to. I mean you can’t hardly ever simplify and unify something just because somebody wants you to.” Indeed, you cannot do that—unify and simplify— to learning, because learning happens in digression. It happens when we explore aimlessly but purposefully.
It is time to break the sacrament of productivity and free our inner students from their leashes. In an era when producitivity masquarades as a personal achievement, it is not surprising that ageism prevails in many industries such as technology. The reason for such discriminatory climate is not entirely to be attributed to collective prejudice or bias of societies. Rather, perhaps the trend is an indication that we become so preoccupied with producing more of what is imminently required of us that, in the process, we forget how to learn and therefore gradually stop growing.
To learn does not mean to be productive, but rather to rebel against the environments that put the latter ahead of everything else. In this rebellion we are acting in the name of a value that we feel are intrinsic in all of us, and that value is the right to learn. We all harbor bandits in our hearts that beckon us to dive into the unknown and quench our limitless yearning for knowledge. No authority or environment must be able to subjugate them or bring them to injustice.
And the fight to defend that value begins from within all of us. Although the rebellion begins in our respective minds, all in due time, it will collectively reveal something greater in all of us. The perishing sights of our right to learn enjoins us to take part in this most lonely, but most universal rebellion to escape the theater of learning and become one with our inner learners. A rebellion cannot exist unless it is irrational, and because ours is hopelessly insane, it is all the more worth waging.