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Which Is Better for Your Life - To Be Learned or to Create?

Bill Abbate

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Which is better – to learn or to create? Learning has been an extremely important part of who I am. Discovering my love for learning at a relatively young age made a huge impact on my career and life. Because most of the things I loved to learn about involved people and business, I had ample opportunity to apply and experiment in real-life situations.

Learning by itself, while useful, would have meant far less had I not been able to put it to use. Curiosity plays a significant role in driving our desire to learn. When you can apply what you learn and see positive results, it can motivate you to learn more. As you learn more you gain the ability to create more.

Learning and creating

When I first picked up a guitar at about ten years old, I quickly learned how to play a few notes. I practiced and learned from anyone I could for years and became reasonably proficient, playing in a band for a short time. Unfortunately, life interfered and I stopped learning in my early twenties, although I occasionally enjoy playing today.

When I quit learning new things on the guitar, I naturally lost my drive to play. As with anything physical, it takes practice to maintain such a skill, so I can’t play as well as I used to.

Life is like that, isn’t it? When we lose interest in something we once enjoyed learning, we retain some of the skill or ability, but without practice, it plateaus and eventually begins to atrophy.

Learning to play the guitar was great while it lasted. I still enjoy strumming some old songs, but not for hours like I did long ago.

Yet, one thing I still love about the guitar is the songs I created. Their importance and meaning to me have far outlasted learning to play the guitar. I still marvel that I could create music that remains so meaningful to me to this day. Those few songs are my creation and we do tend to love what we create, don’t we?

Creating as a result of learning

While I have spent much of my life learning, I find even greater satisfaction and enjoyment in creating. I ran across the following quote recently that made me realize how important creating is to life.

“It is better to create than to be learned; creating is the true essence of life.” Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971)

While I agree with Niebuhr that creating is the true essence of life, I question whether you can create great value without being somewhat learned.

For example, creating was what drove my interest in computers back in 1983. Mike, our data processing manager (this was before the days of IT), dropped off a pc, software, and printer with a stack of manuals at my lab. The company was doing well, and the $10,000 worth of equipment (nearly $30k today) was a decent investment in our lab. It didn’t hurt that I was good friends with Mike and had mentioned we could use a computer!

Knowing absolutely nothing about using a computer, I asked Mike if he would help me learn. The busy man that he was, he pointed to the stack of manuals and said, “Read those. You’ll figure it out.” During the next few weeks, I did precisely that. Fortunately, I have always loved anything electronic, so I dove in with no help and learned to use a computer from scratch.

Computers at the time were primitive compared to today, and the learning curve was steep with no PC graphical interface at the time. I learned to work with CP/M and later MS-DOS on a screen with only green letters and numbers. The software he provided included a spreadsheet called SuperCalc and a word processing program called WordStar.

When I discovered what a spreadsheet was and what it could do, I was hooked. Everything in my lab and office was done by hand using ledgers, adding machines, calculators, typewriters, with files going into many file cabinets.

This newfangled machine and software with its spreadsheet, which provided what seemed like countless interactive calculators on the screen, was a marvel, as was the word processing program. Talk about taking a giant leap into the future! What an exciting time it was. It was a time of intense learning and continuous creating.

If I could change Niebuhr’s quote, I would add to it:

“It is better to create than to be learned; creating is the true essence of life. To add learning to creating enhances this essence even further.”

The excitement of creating a new spreadsheet and learning macros while interfacing the output with a word processor was amazing. I will never forget my addiction to SuperCalc and WordStar. What an exciting time it was!

Our office productivity and processes improved drastically, as did our reports for submittals on large construction projects. We were one of the first companies in the country to provide computer-generated data and statistical reports for test results.

Learning and creating on that computer in the early ’80s aided my career tremendously. In no time, I went from being a leading technical expert in the industry to becoming a valuable internal consultant creating improved business processes few had thought of at the time.

From those early days of creating, I later had the pleasure to obtain several patents. Yet none of that compares to the creating that is possible today. I have since joined the ranks of others in publishing a book and many articles, the ultimate creations that will last for generations!

Final thoughts

I never dreamed learning to use a computer in the ‘80s would help me continue creating well into retirement. When I read the content published on Medium and other platforms by numerous writers, it is amazing how much creativity exists. So many people are creating such great work, not out of thin air, but from their vast experience. It is the ultimate form of creating the “true essence of life,” as Niebuhr put it.

One of the most important things a writer can do today is to create a legacy through their writing. Think about it. What we write and publish today could remain hundreds or thousands of years into the future. Far longer than our ancestors could have imagined. And the accessibility of such information will likely get only easier as well.

As you work and write, imagine the potential impact you will have on other people in the future, including your relatives, when they read your writing. Now that creation will truly be the essence of your life!

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA
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