In recent Leading Thoughts, I’ve emphasized summer themes of rest, reading, and rethinking your leadership style. In this edition, I want to urge you to master a skill that is essential to your success.

One of the great themes of American history is self-education. I’m sure you remember those elementary and high school history classes where you heard about Washington, Franklin, and Lincoln educating themselves. Perhaps your teachers told you about how Harry Truman was the only president of the last century not to have had a college degree but that he read voraciously and taught himself. You may have been inspired by the self-education tales of Frederick Douglas, or more recently, David McCullough.

This art of self-education is essential for leadership today. Any leader who intends to keep up with the pace of knowledge and master his or her field will have to invest themselves in a lifetime project of self-education. Degrees will help. Continuing education programs will help. Great leadership, though, will require an aggressive program of self-education.

Why is this? Part of the answer is the astonishingly rapid increase in knowledge happening in our day. Knowledge doubles in the world about every two years. A technological revolution occurs in the world in even less time—about every eighteen months. This means that in less time than it takes the average person to earn a masters degree—a degree they pursued to keep up in their field—much of what they learn may be obsolete.

This is why we should get degrees that are broad but learn the details of our fields through an aggressive program of self-education.

I remember my college roommate filling our dorm room with printer paper as he learned FORTRAN, COBOL, and other computer languages. We graduated in May of 1981. That same year, the first personal computer hit the market. Within months of his graduation, what my roommate had mastered in his degree was irrelevant to his daily work.

Of course, my roommate’s work on those languages helped him. They sharpened his mind and prepared him to understand and master the next big thing. Now he is a successful lawyer in Los Angeles, and I’m very proud of him, yet he uses the same Apple computers I do, and I double majored in history and theology.

All of my degrees are in the fields of history, political science, philosophy, and theology. I’m grateful for every moment I spent in those classes. Yet I can tell you it has been an aggressive program of self-education—framed by what I learned in my degrees—that shapes every book I write, speech I give, and every hour I spend consulting.

Now what about you? If you are relying on your past degrees, you are falling behind. New learning in human behavior, technology, and business arts are changing your world and you can’t stay up with these in college classes. You have to read. You have to watch seminal documentaries, listen to seminal podcasts, and grow a network of self-educators who form a learning community with you.

Master the arts of self-education. It will bring joy to your life, learning to your leadership, and breadth to your impact.

That’s it. Have a great weekend. And go learn something!

Stephen