In 1718, a candlemaker set out to train his son in the business of wax-melting in hopes he would one day take over the family business. Being 12 at the time, the boy would have seven years to learn the ins and outs of candle making. “Perfect!” the dad thought.
However, his son had other plans. Rather than being a stingy old candle maker, the boy decided to work as an apprentice in his brothers print shop. Instead of a seven-year apprenticeship, it would be nine-years with much more laborious work, grueling hours, and fickle details. But the kid knew what he wanted.
And what he wanted wasn’t to become the towns best printer, either.
Instead, Benjamin Franklin knew he wanted to be a writer and the print shop was the best place for him to learn how to do just that. Not only would he be surrounded by new books and popular newspapers from England, but he would have the chance to study those books and newspapers, to understand what made quality writing, quality.
He not only taught himself how to write, but how to run a print business as well. I believe that’s what people in those days called, “Executing two dove with one pebble.”
Value Learning Over Anything Else
Every time I hear this story of Ben Franklin, I’m inspired to continue my pursuit of knowledge no matter the bounds. You see, I’m quite a curious fellow and desire to have a deep understanding of many subjects: history, philosophy, theology, physics, and computer science. However, with that desire to learn comes challenges.
One of those challenges is deciding to live a life where learning is a priority and not earning.
Benjamin Franklin understood this concept well. He chose a longer, more brutal apprenticeship in the short-term, which allowed him the opportunity to become a famous writer and launched his career into politics.
What About The Money, Mate?
I first read about this concept in Mastery by Robert Greene and remember thinking it was cool and all, but was in a different place in my life. I was still in school, had just gotten out of an apprenticeship, and didn’t really know what I wanted to do.
But I was reminded of this a few months back when Gary Ten posted this video on YouTube. Tan’s thesis is:
Whatever job you’re working right now, you either have to be earning or learning. If you’re not doing either of those things, get out.
I think that’s a great way to help someone on the verge of leaving their job, but I want to take it one step further. Instead of simply evaluating whether you’re earning or learning, do so on a weighted scale with learning being weighted higher.
So if you’re in a position to take a job where you’ll make 10X what you currently do, but won’t have much free time to learn and the job is pretty routine, you might want to take that. 10X is a lot of money.
But if you’re in a position to make 2-3X what you currently do with less time to study and with a monotonous job, stick with the one where you can learn more. This could be the job that allows you to learn more while doing your actual work, or the job that frees up your time to study the things you’d like to study.
Ben Franklin chose the profession that directly advanced his career, but that’s just one path. If he had taken the candle making job but still had time to study and be a great writer, that would’ve worked as well.
Why This Is Hard Today
As I was thinking about this concept, student debt became a core concept I know I had to address in this piece.
I think the value of money took over learning not because we’re obsessed with earning, but because people don’t have any other choice. They spend 4+ years in college earning a degree and come out with loans that need to be paid off immediately.
Naturally, people choose a high-paying job to help make that happen. But this can lead to fear of losing that high-paying job and therefore are less prone to take risks, try something new, and innovate in their career.
If people are afraid to take risks, they can’t fail, and if they can’t fail, it makes it difficult to learn. Therefore, creativity and innovation are at a lack in legacy career paths.
To increase innovation in different careers, failing needs to be an option without consequences. But that won’t happen until the value of learning in early-stage careers is held in higher regard than earning.
Disclaimer: I’m not recommending people quit their job and go live in a cave and read Socrates the rest of their life. Rather, I’m proposing a simple framework to use if you’re someone who wants to learn more about the world but haven’t been able to figure out how.