Why Keep Learning?

Introduction

Adopting the right mindset begins with recognizing the importance of ongoing learning. The following story about Charles Darwin serves as a reminder that learning is a survival skill.

In 1831, Charles Darwin embarked on a five-year geological expedition on HMS Beagle around the world. While we all remember him as he was in his later years—a graying old man with an affinity for eccentric facial hair—at the time of the voyage he was just a 22-year-old university graduate who possessed an uncanny natural intelligence, a hunger for adventure, and a desire to see the world before he settled into his anticipated profession as a parson.

Young Charles was likely not so different from myself or other twenty-something college graduates: old enough to make his own choices, desperate to spread his wings and start really living, yet still inexperienced and naïve in ways he couldn't yet understand. In a letter to his friend and mentor, John Stevens Henslow, the man who would be Charles Darwin shared a thought that most of us can relate to: “I dare hardly look forward to the future, for I do not know what will become of me.”1 When he wanted to sign up as a volunteer on the voyage of the Beagle to help with the recording of geological findings, his father said what most of our fathers would likely say if we pitched the idea of being on a boat in strange waters for half a decade: “Are you out of your mind?”

I am paraphrasing. In his autobiography, Darwin noted that his father “strongly objected” and would only relent in his objections if someone sensible (read: not Darwin) said the trip was a good idea. Luckily Darwin's uncle, apparently a sensible man with a vicarious need for adventure, spoke up in favor of the plan, allowing the young lad to set off and experience what Darwin reflected on later as “the most important event of my life.”

The voyage also turned out to be one of the most important events in the history of modern science thanks in part to observations Darwin made while the Beagle was stopped at the wild Galápagos Islands. Located west of Ecuador, the volcanic archipelago was positively simmering with fresh deposits of lava and such a diverse array of giant tortoises, iguanas, and unusual vegetation that Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the ship, deemed the shore “fit for pandemonium.”2

While documenting and recording the diverse array of wildlife on the islands, Darwin noticed the finches—small, plainly colored, and all-around unimposing birds that occurred in large flocks across the archipelago. He soon conceded to “inexplicable confusion” over classifying the birds. Though there seemed to be variations in size and shape and other physical features, they surprisingly had similar feeding habits and plumage, which led a perplexed Darwin to dub them “very curious.”3

By the time the Beagle set sail for its next call, Tahiti, Darwin had added six types of finches to his specimen menagerie. It wasn't until 1837, two years after his visit to the archipelago, that Darwin—with a little help from some scientist friends—realized his Galápagos finch samples weren't just different types but entirely different species of bird. Upon further examination he discovered that these unique species of finches had done something extraordinary: within a few generations, the beaks of the birds had altered rapidly in both size and shape to accommodate changes in their food sources and environment. Furthermore, each of the islands in the Galápagos had its own distinct set of finch species. Darwin theorized that the different species likely came from one common ancestor yet had all adapted over time to their present environments. In the process, they had become completely different birds.

This observation planted the seed for his theory of evolution, though it would take Darwin over twenty more years to fully articulate and present that theory to the world in his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species. For those of you who skipped out on high school biology, I can recap one of the book's paradigm-shattering messages in one simple phrase: survival of the fittest.

We've all heard about the survival of the fittest, and I am willing to bet that if asked to summarize it you would say something like “kill or be killed” or “only the strong will survive.” But the truth is that through his work with the finches, Darwin understood that “the fittest” were not necessarily the most aggressive or dominant of any species but those most able to adapt to changes in their environment.

Nearly two hundred years ago, Darwin's seminal work was informed by the finches' prodigious ability to adapt. But for us modern professionals, the example they provide—of rapid adaptation and survival—is more than just a scientific principle: it gives us insight into how to move forward and succeed in a job market that, right before our eyes, is shifting away from the decades-old nine-to-five standard into something yet undefined and still forming. The collision of chronically high unemployment with an expanding global workforce (among other factors) has turned the American job market into an ongoing survival-of-the-fittest scenario where professionals have a clear choice: evolve their careers or risk career extinction.

1: survival of the fittest is from the book:

Minimise

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