10 Dec 2016 16:09 IST

Always sharpen your saw

In today’s fast changing world, it is doubly important to stay relevant by learning continuously

Let me start with an anecdote about Lotus. Or, more specifically, Lotus 1-2-3.

Contrary to what many readers may think, this is not about India’s national flower. It is about a spreadsheet software, which has been discontinued. It was actually a precursor to the now commonly-used Microsoft Excel.

As we all know, spreadsheets are one of the most commonly used applications in the business world. At one time, most people were familiar with Lotus 1-2-3, while very few even knew about Excel, which was largely used only on the Apple Macintosh machines.

When I started my career, learning Lotus 1-2-3 was top priority. It had to be mastered quickly. But it so happened that after I changed jobs, I joined an organisation that used Apple machines. Therefore, Excel was the spreadsheet being used, and it was quite different from Lotus.

This basically meant I had to relearn the use of spreadsheets and as a result of learning, became fairly proficient in the Excel.

Dual skills

A few years into my career, there was a sudden shift in the use of spreadsheets. Microsoft Excel was introduced and soon became the dominant application being used.

During this period of change, I had a competitive advantage vis-à-vis my colleagues — the knowledge of both the software applications. This helped me significantly during that period, to be more efficient and productive.

The lesson

Although that particular learning had happened by default, it taught me a very powerful lesson — and that was to consciously and consistently keep learning new things. Especially those which might become very important in the years to come.

“Sharpening the saw” is a common phrase, and I realised its importance after the Lotus 1-2-3 and Excel experience. Although most people have heard of this phrase, or might have been told to keep learning constantly, very few actually put it into practise. They tend to slip into a sense of complacency with regard to what they know, and stop bothering about what they don’t know.

Scratching the surface

A simple example in today’s context is the ability to search and find information. Almost everyone in the world regularly uses Google. However, the majority is content knowing the absolute bare minimum when it comes to using such a powerful search engine.

As the quantum of information keeps increasing, basic search techniques will yield only the most obvious answers. Anyone learning even a few more search string tricks might have a competitive advantage over others who are searching for similar information.

“Sharpening the saw” or constant learning to upgrade and keep up with the changing dynamics is even more crucial in the coming years because the quantum and pace of change will only increase.

In such a situation, one needs to start cultivating this as a habit. Only then will it become self-sustaining and consistent. But if it doesn’t become a habit, any such constant learning will be seen as extra effort and might fall by the wayside in the face of the daily pressures.

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