Literacy: The only skill that matters

Recently Jonathan Levi published a boon named “The only skill that matters“,  and sent me a copy as a gift. The book describes Jonathan’s struggles with education and will definitely motivate you.   As always, instead of providing a recap of the book itself, I will provide my own honest thoughts to complement the reading experience.

Fighting information overload

After the agricultural and industrial revolution, came the information revolution. 50 years ago those who had knowledge ruled the world. High education was the key skill for getting a highly desired job and changing the face of the future. Nowadays we drown in information. Everybody can get access to more information than we can process in our entire life almost immediately.  The game changed. Arguably, the only skill that we really need is the ability to navigate this ocean of information.

Literacy nowadays is much more than the ability to read, it is a lifestyle.

Outdated school system

Virtually everybody has a BSc, MBa or PhD. A high degree does not any longer guarantee any professional relevance.  Instead, education provides the key ingredients for lifelong learning: the ability to ask the right questions, basic skills to apply the language learned and enough background to understand what the experts are talking about.

We would expect the school system to provide the emotional stimulation to build up curiosity and creativity, the learning skill that allows to learn faster and sift through data, and emotional support for those whose confidence is below their abilities. Unfortunately, none of this is provided.  Schools teach some basic skills that were relevant 50 years ago, and using new books did not make teachers more flexible. As Jonathan points in his book:

Think back for a moment. You had years of physical education classes teaching you the importance of exercise. There were a few health and biology classes teaching you how your individual cells and organs work. I bet there were even some very uncomfortable sex ed classes that taught you how to safely use your other parts…but what about your brain?

What is literacy?

Now, I have a complex question for you, what is literacy in our age. Jonathan points the finger back at me giving this as an example:

Lev was, without question, the fastest reader I’d ever met. Upon arriving to work at 9:00 a.m., he would read five to ten articles over his morning coffee, flooding my inbox with articles about our common interests by 9:15. What blew my mind more than anything, though, was that Lev not only comprehended information at this speed: he remembered it. A conversation with Lev was like consulting Wikipedia, only with more humor.

Without a question, this is a very positive review of my skills. However, this is a review of what I could do ten years ago. I learned a thing or two since. Yes, I sifted through many books when I was younger, I have extensive education and I can read and discuss professional literature of different kinds. But does it make me truly literate?

Maybe what makes me literate is a very different set of skills: curiosity that is provoked by casual discussions with the fine people who are my friends and family, critical thinking that allows me to find holes in explanations and dig deeper, lifestyle that ensures I have the best sleep, diet, and exercise for long-term memorization. What matters for me now is not the ability to acquire knowledge quickly, but the ability to look for the information I need and keep it once I found it.

Ideally, for better literacy, I would love also to be better applying what I learned to shape my own destiny. I am still learning…

Grandma’s story

One of the people who shaped me to be the man I am was my grandmother. She knew fluently about 12 languages, was a prodigy in history when she was young, and definitely was the person most close to me through my entire childhood.  My grandmother got the best scores at her University and could pursue any career she wanted. When she was around thirty years old, she decided to quit the academic circles, work in a manual job and take care of her kids.

Why did he do this? Her explanation was profound. We do don know anything. What people teach in Universities is a lie, as it is based on missing or manipulated information and we cannot use it in our life. Instead, we can focus on the things that visibly matter, and spread our love.

My grandmother was definitely someone with great education, yet she trusted her education approximately as much as Leonardo Davinci trusted scholastic theologists of his time. Because all of her education did not help where it mattered.

Emotional wellbeing

We can definitely triple your reading speed and comprehension with 95% success rate. This has been done with thousands of students. We can teach you to use your visualization to control your emotional wellbeing. This is a subject of another course to be published soon. Again I quote from Jonathan’s book:

By eighth grade, I was in the deepest depression imaginable. Every day, I spent my time in class scribbling helpful reminders on my arms, ranging from “Shut The F*** Up” to “I hate…me.” At the age of thirteen I was already considering suicide, and had I not been an only child, I might just have gone through with it. Luckily, someone actually took note, and though she made sure to keep our friendship private for reputation purposes, she went to the school counselor. What ensued remains one of the most painful experiences of my entire life. Watching my parents—who have always loved their only child more than life itself—struggle with the pain of having almost lost me gave me a shock to my core. With their support, I resolved to stick around for a while and lean in.

This common and easily avoidable.

I wish the school was providing these skills to all the students. We definitely needed to provide our coaching to our own children to overcome their demons.

Would the reading help to overcome the emotional struggles? Maybe. Only it is very hard to find the right books and not to drown in the noise.

When I first learned psychology I read every book of Freud, Young and Adler I could find. Eventually, I understood that I like them as fiction but they do not help me.  I had to read all I could find on CBT and NLP, go through 7 years of meditation, and get a very qualified counselor before I got my answers. (Again, I will publish a relevant course soon).

Technical capabilities

One of the things I am often asked about: how to learn programming faster. The people who ask, assume that reading a couple of books and remembering the syntaxis of a programming language will suffice. Personally I do not believe this. Technical knowledge is hands-on knowledge, where the theoretical understanding supplements the lessons we learn the hard way.

The guy who invented algorithms also invented algebra. The basic ability to technical capability is the capacity to approach the tasks in the right way. We learn to break complex tasks into smaller tasks and solve the small tasks next. With time we learn to anticipate the culture of the people who build the systems we use, and the controls within are guided by that culture. If many people addressed a subject in some way and fail, we learn to address other subjects or try different ways.

What makes a great programmer is not his understanding of syntaxis, but the ability to learn and apply a certain programming culture,  mathematical thinking, and proper argumentation,  code-reading speed and attention to details. If the person is also highly creative and motivated, he is one of the top 4% of the programmers who write 60% of the code.

Multiple literacies

I would argue with Jonathan that there is no one kind of literacy. In fact, there are many interconnected forms of literacy. Acquiring one form of literacy simply opens the path to further learning. Calling literacy “the only skill” is a poetic license. The skills involved are extremely complex and fun to acquire.

Below I provide an Amazon link for Jonathan’s book:

You are welcome to read it and get motivated.

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