Don’t let education limit you

People usually think education prepares them, but it might also do the opposite!

Pablo Picasso famously said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”

As we all know, once a child enters school he “learns” about art—what is “good art” and what is not even considered art at all. He learns to criticize his own creative expression, rather than simply allow it to flow out of him. He might even lose all of his (or her) innate desire to create.

We’re often told we need an education to pursue our dreams. As someone with doctoral degrees in medicine and pharmacology, I understand how true that can be. I couldn’t have practiced medicine, or pharmacology, nor developed Murad’s clinically tested skincare products without the education I received.

Nevertheless, I’ve also seen the ways that education can limit people. In fact, too often an advanced degree trains you to see one aspect of the world in great detail, while blinding you to everything outside your field of vision. “If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.”

I see that in my own profession—medicine—all the time: Relatively few physicians are general practitioners any more. Most are specialists, with training that limits their ability to see or treat their patients holistically. Instead, they focus on the illness, not the person. They treat the condition—acne, for example—typically with a drug prescription—and don’t take into account their patient’s stress, diet, exercise, sleep, and other factors that are likely to have contributed to the condition—and to recreate it once the medication has run its course.

Worse, most specialists don’t talk (professionally at least) to people outside their specialty. Dermatologists don’t talk to nutritionists, or psychologists, or internists—except perhaps at dinner parties.

This same tunnel vision takes place in other educated professions, as well. The term “silos” refers to the phenomena of highly educated people operating in a tower that is insulated from other disciplines. However, in the real world, there are no isolated towers: everything is affected by everything else. The moon influences the tides; ocean currents affect the weather; political unrest in one part of the world raises food prices everywhere. It’s not just poetry to say, “We are stardust.” The elements of our bodies actually do come from stars that exploded eons ago.

So, while it’s great to know a lot about a particular subject, it’s important not to let that knowledge blind you to other possibilities.

I’m not a Zen Buddhist, but I’m told that they encourage practitioners to hold a “beginner’s mind.” A beginner’s mind is open to all possibilities, whereas an expert’s mind is closed. If you think you know everything, little in the way of new information can get in.

“Beginner’s mind” is similar to one of my own favorite Insights: “Don’t just think outside the box; think as if there is no box.” Similarly, I usually start my presentations with this quote from Nobel Laureate Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi: “Discovery consists of seeing what everyone has seen and thinking what nobody else has thought.”

Too often, believing that we already know the answer prevents us from allowing new ideas to enter—or even to see something that’s obvious, but we’ve just grown accustomed to overlooking it. “We can’t see the forest for the trees,” as the saying goes. Humans are so accustomed to discounting Cultural Stress, they don’t even identify it as stress anymore. It has become background noise. And like background noise, it can dull our hearing.

That’s why a change of perspective can be so illuminating.

Researchers have found that often the best—and certainly the most novel—solutions come from outside a given industry: The 3M Company, for example, developed a new way to prevent post-surgical infections following advice from a theatrical-makeup specialist. Cardiologist Dr. Michael DeBakey worked with NASA engineers to develop an artificial heart pump based on the space shuttle’s fuel pumps. A company that needed to track inventory borrowed ideas from the sensors on miniature robot-soccer players. An escalator company borrowed a solution from the mining industry to install escalators in shopping malls.

Formal education can also make it difficult for us to try new things, to take risks, to appear foolish. After all, we have our reputations to protect! But by now my friends and followers know that I believe we should give ourselves permission to be imperfect, to take chances—even to behave like toddlers! That’s how we keep from becoming rigid and stuck—literally—in our ways.

The best way to not let education limit you is (ironically) to keep learning—broadly! Give yourself permission to explore many fields of interest—the plants you see when you walk your neighborhood, the stars you see when you look at the night sky. Pursue whatever topic interests you: where your food comes from; what Japanese food tastes like; music from India; movies and books outside your usual field of interest. Take interest in little kids, teens, and old people and see the world through their eyes. Travel! And if there’s something new you want to try but you’re afraid of feeling foolish, do it anyway! Be imperfect; live longer!

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