tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Real learning requires you to weigh experience against media reports

I am a big fan of learning by doing. I do not have a business degree but I feel like I do since I have twenty-plus years of small business experience. For me, it has been very effective to learn by doing; I get a lot more out of making my own mistakes than I do by reading about someone else’s mistakes.

But not everything can be learned directly by doing; most of the time, we have to accept the authority of an expert. One of my fears about our culture is that too many people look to television and newspapers for expertise. This is a mistake. Media has its place, but it is not as an authoritative teacher.

Media is big business; major newspaper publishers and network news professionals have to weigh numerous competing commercial interests whenever they make a decision about what to publish or broadcast. Most news stories are meant to appeal to our emotions, not our intellect. News programs and newspapers are first and foremost sales vehicles, and sales is primarily an emotional game. Any sales professional knows you sell on benefits (emotional appeal), not features (intellectual appeal).

The important thing to remember about anything we learn from television or newspapers is that it is only a start; it is not the final word. And oftentimes, it is only a start of baby steps. Knowledge comes about through intellectual pursuit, which requires commitment and takes time. It is more akin to getting in shape through diet and exercise than it is to fueling up with a self-service stop at the gas station.

People are the source of news so the best way to learn is to actually visit with people. Actually talking to someone is better than reading something from someone who talked to someone.

Real knowledge, of course, is knowing what’s in someone’s heart, not what’s in the newspaper. I know a lot of people who are up on the news but don’t have a clue about who their neighbor is. Too many people are happy to read the newspaper or plop down in front of the television set, but lack the initiative to engage their neighbor. I think that is really too bad – for both the learner and the neighbor.

Realistically, most of us are forced to rely on secondary sources for much information. The value of that secondary information, however, is proportional to our first-hand information. If I spend my entire day in my house, never interacting with anyone, then the news I get on TV and in the newspaper or over the radio is far less meaningful because I have no self-determined context for the information. All I have is someone else’s context, and the context of that editor or reporter or producer may not in any way reflect my own life and circumstances. However, if I am out in the world most of the day, interacting with people, observing first-hand how people behave on the bus and in the department store and in the restaurant or in church, then I have some context for absorbing stories I get from broadcast and print media.

Economists, for example, frequently make pronouncements about the condition of the country. They cite employment figures and inflation and production levels and many other factors; newspapers regularly publish these analysis. But how often do we read this stuff and scratch our heads because it just doesn’t seem to fit our own experience? They talk about full employment, but the guy in Michigan is puzzled because he hasn’t worked in a year. Or they talk about high rates of inflation and the guy trying to sell his house wonders why he can’t get any more for it than what he paid a decade ago.

Economists often use statistics gathered from across the nation. They get numbers from everywhere so that they, in fact, represent nowhere. Aggregates and averages make for easy reporting but they do not necessarily represent what is happening in your home town. So if all you did was read the Wall Street Journal and you failed to pay attention to local market conditions -- like the price of milk at the corner store, the length of time a neighbor has been out of work, and whether anyone on the block is remodeling their kitchen -- you might have a totally inaccurate idea of what’s going on.

For many years I did not have a television set so I hardly ever saw television news. When I would mentioned this to someone, they would ask: “How do you know what’s going on?” I would answer: “I live my life.”

To this day, I continue to think that is the best way to learn. Live your life. Intellectual strength is more about interacting with others than it is about absorbing facts. It is easy to learn what is in the newspaper but it takes a little more effort to learn what is in someone’s heart, even your own.

No comments: