Matters Column

Knowledge is required for, but not a guarantee of, success

March 27, 2015
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We are told from an early age that knowledge is the key to success: If we learn, we will achieve. If we set our sights high when establishing our goals and objectives and work hard to equip ourselves with the knowledge to accomplish our goals, great things will happen. In front of each of us lies an endless number of possibilities as long as we pay attention to what is taught in school, apply what we learn, then never stop learning throughout life.

Knowledge alone, however, is not a key that opens up any opportunity. Our recent focus on providing every child or student with an education, leaving nobody behind, ignores the basic reality that each individual child or student should be able to learn — and that we all learn differently.

Wisdom is the application of knowledge. Just because someone knows facts, details or information does not make them a leader, a teacher or a success. Individuals chosen to participate on the TV game show “Jeopardy” demonstrate a vast base of knowledge —an unending ability to recall what many would consider an astounding grasp of history, trivia and culture — but they do not demonstrate any more success outside of this knowledge-based niche than anyone else.

The application of knowledge through wise choices, decisions and actions that anticipate consequences (both planned and unintended) is what truly defines success, particularly if we do not care who gets the credit for the results that are achieved. Knowledge allows us to think about issues, topics and challenges from many perspectives. Wisdom (the application of knowledge) allows us to succeed by putting what we know into action.

Not all individuals are “wired” to attend college. Some learn through books, and we need educated teachers, engineers, doctors, managers and other professionals to study, practice and learn so they can lead, teach and create. Others, though, can make a difference by applying the knowledge they attain to situations that do not require a college degree.

Trade schools provide knowledge that can be applied within technical careers (manufacturing, tool and die, machinists, carpenters, mechanics and a plethora of other significant occupations that contribute to society). Certificate programs can focus learning to a narrow slice of knowledge that can be directly applied to a defined situation or a specific career.

Though our grade schools and high schools equip us with information that is vital and necessary to survive in this world, we must continually stretch our knowledge base throughout life so we can accept new challenges by applying our knowledge wisely to the elimination of roadblocks or the expansion of our responsibilities. Learning plants the seeds of prosperity —seeds that lie dormant until they are nurtured and applied. When we apply our knowledge, we are able to see it grow into endless fields of opportunity. When we transfer our skills toward the resolution of new challenges not previously resolved, we reap the benefits of lifetime learning.

We should seek knowledge but strive for ways to apply what we learn to better ourselves and those around us. We should establish goals and seek to accomplish them, but also understand success is not simply the fulfillment of a stated objective having no purpose or meaning. Success is not measured by what we have or what we do but rather by what we are able to accomplish with the gifts we are given and how we can apply the knowledge we attain —how we are able to impact, influence or enlighten others as we demonstrate wisdom through the application of all we know and all we have experienced. It is not elevating, enabling or providing for others that matters; it is fulfilling our own potential as we vacate each “station” in life which another can fill if they, too, wisely apply their knowledge.

Knowing is nothing unless it is associated with action, responsibility, accountability and focused follow-through. We can know much without making a difference unless (and until) we put our knowledge into action. We can know much without making a difference unless we take responsibility for our actions by learning from our mistakes so we can move on to accomplish our next objective and then help others learn without having to experience the same mistake or disruption. We can know much without making a difference unless we act on our beliefs, assumptions and thoughts so that something can be moved forward rather than being allowed to stagnate.

Nothing changes unless (and until) something changes. We cannot expect to change our outcomes unless we alter our approach. We cannot improve our environment unless we take intentional steps to move from where we are to where we wish to be.

Knowledge provides us with the foundation upon which we can build our house of dreams but we must apply what we know without requiring the praise or credit for what we have done to reach new ceilings (which will become floors upon which we can continue to add new perspectives to those solutions we know work as we strive to accomplish those things we hope might be possible).

When we seek knowledge it should be purposeful, with all learning directed toward the accomplishment of an objective or the realization of a dream. Knowing for the sake of knowing may allow us to win the game of “Jeopardy,” but applying what we know to the accomplishment of everyday problems, issues and situation will allow us to succeed in the game of life. Transferring that wisdom to others will help them avoid the pitfalls we have already discovered as they seek to advanced even further than we might have dared go.

David Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association in Grand Rapids.

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