Stories of life-long learning

The following was part of a speech I gave at the opening of a training centre today. The centre trains individuals in IT, Project Management and life skills as part of continuing education.

Henry Ford once said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” Henry Ford is an American industrialist and the founder of Ford Motors Company. Ford did not invent the automobile nor did he invent the concept of assembly lines. But he combined these two brilliantly together to create the first automobile, the famous Model T car that middle class Americans could afford. Automobiles went from becoming expensive toys of the rich into practical machines of everyday lives that revolutionised transport and American industry. In the process, Henry Ford himself became very rich. Ford himself was a learner and doer. At 15, he learned how to dismantle and assemble back his pocket watch and became a famous watch repairman amongst his friends.  As a young adult, he learnt about machines as an apprentice. He eventually worked for Thomas Edison, another great inventor and was promoted to chief engineer where he took charge of designing vehicles. After striking out on his own and after several unsuccessful attempts, he eventually pioneered an industrial model for car manufacturing that worked.

Another great man, Albert Einstein had also said, “Once you stop learning you start dying”. Einstein is world renowned for his many scientific works, from the invisible world of quantum physics to the vast expanse of the universe, far beyond what the most powerful telescopes can see. What was interesting about Einstein was that he didn’t amount to much in the eyes of people around him when he was young.  When Einstein’s father asked his son’s headmaster what profession the boy should adopt, he said, “It doesn’t matter; he’ll never make a success of anything.”  He failed his first admissions examination to the Zurich Polytechnic. After graduating from the university, Einstein was denied a low-level teaching assistant position there. He eventually found work as a third-class government patent examiner. That was when he came out with some of his best discoveries, including the theory of Relativity. But he was one curious guy whose mind never stopped working and he never stopped learning and discovering new things to a ripe old age.

I am a firm believer in life-long learning too, whether through formal courses or informal learning. More important though is how one should put what has been learnt into active practice.

Many people know my wife and I as the founders of ASKnLearn, now called WizLearn. It went from a 4-man start-up in 2000 to become one of the top 2 e-learning providers to schools in Singapore, employing some 150 people before we sold off the business in 2007. What most do not know is that the idea for ASKnLearn was sparked off from a 2-day workshop I had attended at SIM in 1999. The workshop was on ‘Creating Values in Your Business’. At the workshop, we were challenged to think how we can make quantum leaps in our businesses by leveraging on new business models and technologies. It was the era of the dotcom boom in USA then. Famous examples such as Dell’s were cited. Michael Dell took advantage of the opportunities offered by the internet to bypass the middleman to sell high quality computers at affordable prices direct to customers. Business boomed for Dell through a new business model. The internet had opened up new possibilities to allow transformational changes to be made at breakneck speeds.

Shortly after the training, at the grand old age of 34, I came down with chicken pox. I was the General Manager of an education group then. I was busy and had little time to reflect on things around me. I had to take 2 weeks of sick leave from work. To make matters worse, my son was just 1 month old then and I had to isolate myself from him too in case I spread the virus.

In those free moments, I thought about what was said at the workshop. I thought to myself, “Hey, I am trained in computer science and I somehow ended up in different aspects of the education industry in various career moves. What can I do to use my training, the technology around us and my work experiences to create a new business that can deliver value in a novel way?” I decided to follow up on an old business idea I had thought of several years back but was not feasible due to the infancy of technology then. I called together some friends, who were not afraid to catch chicken pox from me. We did the traditional back-of-the-envelope thingy that many dotcom start-ups went through. I shared an idea for online learning and testing. My friends decided to invest, my wife and I left our jobs and ASKnLearn was born.

So when you are prepared to learn and your mind is constantly active, you can make things happen.


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