Never Stop Learning

In the mid-1990s, a professor at one of my alma maters, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore, India, planted himself at my doorstep in New York. He was on a trip to Rio de Janeiro for an international conference and had arranged an "essential, educational" detour in North America before proceeding south. During his stay with me, he observed various facets of our department at Columbia University in action. Before he left for Rio, he summarized his New York experience.

"Here in America, you people keep learning all the time. From your interns and residents all the way to your senior faculty at the top. In India, we are just as good as the people in the United States at the stage when we finish residency training, but we tend to stop learning after we get a permanent faculty position. Your learning curve is a straight line that keeps going up, whereas ours climbs early on but then slows down and completely levels off. That is why you have accomplished so much more than your former classmates, who were just as good as you were, until you left and came to the States."

I have taken the liberty of paraphrasing what he said to make his gruff and curt utterances more reader-friendly. But the kernel of truth in his brief monologue, which I must confess had escaped me despite my having trained and worked for many years in both countries, is very important. I now think of "compound learning" in the same way that I view compound interest in an investment portfolio. A 10 percent annual increment in knowledge does not merely double the effect of a 5 percent annual advance. An annual 5 percent knowledge gain leaves you with a 70 percent increase in knowledge after ten years, whereas an annual 10 percent gain leaves you with a 180 percent increase after ten years. For an annual 20 percent knowledge gain, the increase after ten years is approximately 420 percent, which is literally six times the 70 percent increase seen with a 5 percent annual growth rate. So you should view learning as a lifelong and continuous process, and not sit back and vegetate after reaching a permanent position.

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