The Time Value of Learning

time value of learning

A friend of mine wrote a great a post on The Time Value of Shipping – specifically geared towards the practice of Product Management and delivering products at the right time.  The goal is to constantly to continually meet and exceed customer expectations and of course delight them with a better product incrementally. If you’re a product manager, you should read it. It’s really really good.

Anyway, after reading his post, it got me thinking, outside of thinking about the time value of money, and his post on shipping. What if we applied that sort of thinking to how we treat our learning and where that learning will lead us to?

Choosing what to learn

sweet spot of learning

Before learning something, there might be the dilemma of choosing what to learn. There will be a few things that you’ll naturally gravitate towards, whether for something that’s fun and creative like improv, stand-up comedy, painting, writing or calligraphy to name a few. And then there’s things that while are “fun” can have some sort of realistic upside that allows you to be creative, solve real problems and have immediate and demand practical skillsets like writing software or designing user experiences.

It’s a beautiful thing when you discover that one thing you’re learning that you find fun, are continually challenged and there’s a handsome return for your efforts of what you’re learning. After that, it’s just putting in the time to get decent… and eventually great.

Time – the great equalizer

hour glass

If we were to treat our time as a precious resource that we invest in (like money), the hope would be to get more out of it or lead to some sort of outcome that allows us to be a better/more productive version of ourselves somewhere down the line. We only have about 28,000 days on this earth, and everyone is given roughly the same amount of time. If that gives you a better perspective, spend it wisely. I’ve used up about 11,680 days as of writing this.

While there isn’t a formula to be able to calculate what the downstream effects are, but it should in theory lead to greater opportunities because you’re capable of more than you were able to do when you started learning that “thing”. You can mitigate your risks by shipping something publicly once a week to see how it resonates with the public, iterate and test how you feel about the subject matter that you’re learning about.

You can’t exactly throw money at a skills problem either to be able to innately have that “instinct” or “taste”. That one skill set or a several that you’re pretty good at needs to be cultivated, organically over time. You can’t teach taste. You need to acquire it on your own through hands on experience, and getting real world feedback with what the “best” truly entails.

Opportunity costs

In micro-economic theory, opportunity costs are the things that you don’t get to “enjoy” because you chose that one thing over all other options because you get the most joy from it. Because we’re only given so much time, and can’t attempt all possible outcomes, there’s a cost to choosing one thing over another.

Given the constraints of having limited time, you can run learning experiments for yourself to see what the outcomes are. For instance, if you were to learn about marketing automation for 30 days and understand its use cases, but didn’t have a designer or developer who could execute it, you’ll have the choice of trying to learn it yourself.  You could reasonably ship some decent looking emails after taking a course on HTML email design from say an online skills school like Treehouse. Let’s assume that I take the course and I’m able to ship a drip email sequence that is able to increase leads and boost revenues. Presumably the pay off is that you have the real world experience and you own an entirely new skillset that can further lead to enhanced credibility among team members – and of course skills that will stay with you forever.

Maybe the foregone costs of putting off watching a Netflix binge of House of Cards might be a better idea after all. We’ll have dozens of choices of where we’ll spend our time, but it’s ultimately up to you to be a little more deliberate and conscious of how and where you’ll spend your time.

Start now vs later?

now vs later

I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been
– Wayne Gretzky

Let’s use an example that the tech world can relate to. Right now, it pays to be fluent in an in demand programming language, whether for web or mobile. If you’re non-technical it might be a good idea to start hacking on front end related stuff or at least having an understanding of how it all works. Being competent in SQL might be useful as well. As I written already, there will be opportunity costs but it’s up to your good judgement and maybe gut instinct on where you should be spending a good chunk of your time to become remarkable at something.

There’s a quote from Wayne Gretzky, perhaps the greatest hockey player of all time – when asked how he’s so good, he said something to the effect of “I skate to where the puck will be, not where it’s been”. It’s simple and profound, but I would argue that he’s right in terms of evaluating what we should be learning. Are you going to stay where the puck is or where you be where the puck is going to capitalize on scoring?

If you’re sharing your progress consistently and showing your journey from the early days, it’s a verifiable proof and a portfolio that you’re building up, piece by piece.

The End Game – Compounding interest and Returns


In the context of personal finance, compound interest refers to the interest that is generated by your principal PLUS its interest, meaning the interest you make on top of the original amount of money invested as well as all previous interest generated.  When you compare that to the skills you learn, it works in a similar way where the longer you deliberately practice something, the better you’ll get at it and it will return it’s value back to you many times over in terms of returns in the future.  Whether you’re looking to become a polyglot (programmer or otherwise), “full stack” whatever, you’re becoming a rarer in terms of talent.   Taking other factors into consideration, such as the pool of people who not only have a similar skillset to yours, but also the amount of time put in and experience, it’s definitely a powerful thing that will make your skillset that much more valuable and rare over the course of time, so as long as you keep on honing that skillset.

What are you learning right now and how long has it taken to sharpen your learning up to this point?