Quanta Computer chairman Barry Lam (林百里) says he became successful because he did not study very hard as a student in National Taiwan University’s electrical engineering department. He believes students at that time studied too hard, memorizing whatever their books said like verses from the Bible, which prevented them from being able to innovate. According to him, his success came from not studying.
Lam’s words are based on his personal life experiences, and naturally carry their own wisdom. Indeed, many successful people around the world failed to complete their formal education. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates both quit college, but were able to achieve something great. Wang Yung-ching (王永慶), founder of Formosa Plastics Corp, only finished elementary school, but is still known as the “god of business” in Taiwan.
Is it possible that the successes of a few geniuses can be extrapolated to mean that the way to succeed is to not study hard? After all, plenty of successful businesspeople completed their formal education, and even though people like Jobs did not continue to receive a formal education, they still studied on their own.
Thus, the main point is perhaps not whether one has attended university or studied hard. What is important is how one studies, whether one soaks up the wisdom found in books, or if one simply studies to cram for exams.
Taiwanese university students usually just read their books to cram for tests, meaning the real goal of studying is lost. This is something that must be carefully considered in Taiwan’s current education system. However, Lam’s encouraging students not to read greatly underestimates the value of books. He is not setting a good example for our youth and he may even be misleading them.
Most people are not geniuses and must learn things one step at a time. If a person is innovative, they must first have a firm foundation and gradually progress from there. After all, Rome wasn’t built in a day. For most people, learning the basics is important, and that requires reading a few books.
The best way to read is to connect whatever it is you are reading to your life, which is the only way you can really understand the wisdom of what a book says and better your life.
Although it is not good to read without actually learning something, that does not mean people should stop reading books. However, university students today are not only reading without learning, they are busy engaging in idle activities and living life in a dazed and confused state. Based on my own observations, these sorts of students pretty much lead a life that has no meaning or become very frustrated after graduating because they do not have any real achievements to speak of.
On the other hand, there are also some outstanding students that have a passion for making the things around them better and they devote their lives to social causes or movements. However, a lot of them do not study very hard either. They think all one needs to do is take action and society will improve. In actuality, improving society is not that simple. One must have a deep understanding of people and how society works to bring about any sort of valuable change. These activists usually become dogmatic fundamentalists and cynical misanthropes.
Another type of student is diligent and is seriously thinking about things. However, these students usually concentrate on what is found in books, are disconnected from society and lack an understanding of life. This sort of student might be able to learn a few things and knows how to study, but their comprehension of things tends to be rather abstract and lacks any deeper understanding of humanity or how society works. Thus, their knowledge becomes a game of words and is not able to produce anything valuable or meaningful. Instead, they become yet another type of student reading books without actually learning anything.
These types of students discussed above are pitiable: reading without learning anything; reading and not taking action; or not reading at all. None of these have the sort of attitude one should have in life. Of course, only limited success will come to those who are busy idling their time away; or worse, not even having fun and simply going through life in a befuddled state; or those who are busy taking action trying to change society, but don’t know how to gain useful knowledge from books.
The ones who will have a meaningful existence are those who can use what they learn from books in their daily lives and put theories into practice. These will be the ones who gain true wisdom from reading books.
Lii Ding-tzann is a professor in the Graduate School of Sociology at National Tsing Hua University.
Translated by Kyle Jeffcoat
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