Approx 1,500 words, 5-7 minutes

The short answer is, “it’s complicated”.

Here’s’ the longer answer:

Last year, I developed a hypothesis, which was prompted, oddly enough, by renewing my home contents insurance. The insurer asked me what various items of my home contents were worth, and what sums I would like these things insured for.

After talking it over with the very patient person on the other end of the phone, I determined that one of the most valuable things in my home—that was dramatically under-insured—was the collection of books I have read in the last 10 or so years. Most of these are something like £15-25 in replacement value (with a few more valuable/out of print exceptions), and I have something like 500 of them. (This is not counting the 100 or so I have given away to friends and business associates, and the other 100 or so I gave to a charity shop because I was simply running out of space to put them all).

Conservatively, then, my mini-library is worth something like £10k, and probably £12k if you count my kindle, too. Not cheap, and definitely worth insuring!

1,000 days of reading

If I read a minimum of 100 pages a day (as is my daily ritual), and I have 500 books, and an average book is 400 pages, then I could consume them all in 2,000 days.

However, reading 100 pages a day is pretty leisurely, even if you stop every now and then to underline, make notes, and reflect. Sometimes, if concentration affords it, I can cram a whole book into a Sunday morning. I don’t read fiction, and most of what I do read is around finance, economics, and psychology; so it’s fair to say the overwhelming majority of my books are dense, academic reads.

Even so, I can easily read 200 pages a day in 1-2 concentrated bursts of effort. And doing so would reduce the reading time by half, to something just under 3 years.

£12k… on books??

Interestingly, 3 years is about the same time it takes to achieve an undergraduate degree.

Degrees at good universities these days are £9k a year in fees, and at least the same again in food and accommodation. Let’s call that, again conservatively, £50k.

Suddenly, spending a fraction of that money (1/5 to 1/4) on books doesn’t seem all that expensive.

Disciplines matter

My guess is that if you wanted to master a subject by reading, writing notes, reflecting, and engaging in discourse, you could do this in relatively “narrow” subjects–like arboriculture or ecology, in the context of planning applications–in a very, very short space of time.

Medicine? No.

There’s something like half a million new publications every year, so to develop mastery, you’d have to refine “medicine” to some tiny, teeny, sub-sub-sub-dimension of the discipline in order to master it in short(er) order, and even then, you need years and years of practical experience.

But commonly required arb or ecology planning work? Definitely.

*Robert Greene’s definition, rather than Nassim Taleb’s, anyway.

Of course, that’s not to say that practical experience in arboriculture and ecology isn’t necessary to attain mastery; of course it is. All the same, if your daily reading across a discipline (provided it is structured and organised properly) takes only a few hours of your day (that 1-2 concentrated bursts of effort), you will still have a lot of time left over to e.g. volunteer with conservancy groups, undertake your own research projects, and beef up your ident skills.

Hell, you could even publish a paper—really, there’s nothing stopping you. It’s only called a dissertation at university. You don’t have to attend university to do one… it’s just a written-up research project after all.

6 months to mastery

I’m reminded when I think about this books vs degree concept, of a Silicon Valley investor—and I apologise because can’t think of his name right now, but I’ll be sure to update this when I remember the damn book he’s quoted in. He is famous for listening carefully to a pitch by an entrepreneur, (whom has planned meticulously for months (one hopes!) before getting up in front of this guy and asking for millions of dollars), and then asking the entrepreneur a very challenging question.

I’m paraphrasing, but it’s something like this:

“That’s a really interesting/cool 10-year plan. I like your long-term thinking. But indulge me; why can’t this be done in 6 months?”

I try to bring a similar attitude to conservations at work. Why waste time? Why do things the way everyone else does them? I mean, sure, there may be legitimate reasons for doing something ‘the way it has always been done’. But, critical thinking is about challenging ideas and trying to falsify hypotheses before accepting them. This is a skill, that frankly, and ironically, is very poorly developed in freshly-minted graduates.

So, I will stick my neck on the line here, and say that if you wanted to master a single sub-discipline of ecology—say, British bats in northern England—you could do this from scratch in six months.

To qualify that statement, we need to define “mastery”, to provide some context. I define it, under these conditions, as: The ability to undertake preliminary roost assessment and emergence surveys, and write reports of sufficient quality so as to be acceptable to planning authorities.

Before your dissonance kicks in, hear me out. Six months is a sodding long time. In a leap year, to make the subsequent numerical examples simpler, it’s 183 days.

At 200 pages per day, that’s 36,600 pages of text you will have read, made notes on, discussed, reflected on, and put into practice. If an average book is 400 pages, that’s almost 100 textbooks on British bats–which there are nothing like in publication (worth reading). Thus, once you have consumed the 20 or so that may be worth reading, you are left with something approximating 28,600 pages in your ‘reading budget’, that you can ‘spend’ reading academic journals, online articles, best practice guidance, and back issues of industry publications.

It’s also an additional 1,098 hours (at 6 hours per day) of time that you can put into the acquisition of field skills, refining your report writing, trial and error research projects, and networking.

Complaining gets you nowhere

That being the case, it puzzles me when I hear graduates complain about how difficult it is to get a job in e.g. ecology consultancy, due to “lacking the experience they need to secure a job”.

Because I’ll tell you something; if you came to me with, “I finished my A-levels, and since then, instead of going to university, I have put a solid six months of concentrated effort into my bat survey skills. I have a Class 1 licence (or am nearly ready for one), and I’m happy for you to send me on a ‘trial survey’ to test my knowledge and skills”; to say I would be impressed is a titanic understatement. In fact, if you ‘passed’ the trial survey and report exercise, you’d have to come across as a complete clown for me not want to hire you.

Equally, it’s frustrating to see employers holding down the wages of these graduates for years, on the grounds of inexperience.

If you’re sat reading this and ready to launch into a diatribe about how six months isn’t enough, I suggest you cool your jets. If you’re fixated on the number, you’re missing the point. Six months, three months, nine months, a year… it doesn’t matter. What matters is you can and should challenge the system. You can (and will, if you apply yourself) achieve in a ‘short time’ what takes others, years. And you can do all of this by cutting out the bullshit and focussing, undistracted, on what really matters.

What I am trying to break is this notion that you need years and years to get good at something like bat surveys, or BS5837 tree surveying, and report writing. Because it’s nonsense. Getting good (enough) at something like bat surveying and report writing is a combination of knowledge and skills that are explicit.

Explicit knowledge and skills can be trained. And training, well, that takes as long as it takes, but no longer.

As an aside: Consultancy is different. There’s a whole range of professional/managerial skills that are tacit and need to evolve experimentally, rather than being deliberately trained – but this will be the subject of another blog post.

If you want to do a specific job, then do the work!

Returning to my original hypothesis then, when I think about what a British university degree is worth, in real terms, I would say it can’t hold a candle to “doing the work” yourself.

That assumes your intention was to undertake a degree to seek gainful employment in a chosen field, rather than because you, a); didn’t know what to do, b); your mates were all doing it, c); you wanted three years of getting shit-faced and eating cold pizza for breakfast, or, d); you wanted to get onto a graduate scheme with a major corporation.

Delightfully, our “doing the work” hypothesis is also borne out (survivorship bias alert!) by some of the most successful people in the last two generations. Two well-known examples are Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Bill Gates of Microsoft: neither of whom finished college; both of whom dropped out of Harvard (because earning their degrees was actually hampering productivity in their desire to produce deeper, more valuable work).

Hypocrite?

I am by no means saying that degrees are worthless. They resolutely are not. I love continuing my own education (after all, as Warren Buffett says, “the best investment you can make is in yourself”), and I have done so at postgraduate level on now three occasions (I have an MBA, and I am currently studying for an MSc psychology).

Nonetheless, as valuable as these qualifications are, they don’t even compare to the knowledge and skills I have acquired over the years empirically (trial and error), from friends and associates (networking), and by reading books, along with the subsequent reflections and discussions (thinking).

I’d love to hear what you think, so if you agree, then share this. Or, if you want to shoot me where I stand, then by all means let me know, in the comments section below.

-R.