Becoming a “Learner/Earner”

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"Close up of ancient book, selective focus"
19 Jul 2012

Adapted from a speech delivered at the annual dinner of the Yeshivah Gedolah of Teaneck, NJ, Tuesday, 17 July 2012.

I started out my life as an earner. That was the focus of my life–the focus of my life. Then, through a series of steps, I became an earner/learner. Then–and this was what a previous piece of mine entitled From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia was all about–I became a learner. For those of you who read it on the Internet, I was able to extol the virtues of learning and of taking time off to learn.

But despite many positive reactions to From Bear Stearns to Bava Metzia, I heard an issue from a number of people: “It’s great to talk about taking off time to learn, but that’s not practical.” I understand that. And now I am in my next phase: I am back at work, but I still start my day in the yeshiva with my learning seder. I am a learner/earner with the emphasis on the “learner.” However, now that I am back at work, I realize that this is a more challenging phase, It is more challenging but it is also a more rewarding phase.

But first–a story. There was a town in which the rabbi lived next to the blacksmith. The blacksmith got up early every morning to start work. The rabbi, who heard the blacksmith get up, said ‘If he can get up early to deal with his business, I should be able to get up even earlier to attend to my holy work.’ And he did. The blacksmith heard the rabbi each morning and saw that he was getting up before the blacksmith. The blacksmith said ‘If the rabbi is able to get up early every morning and he is not doing real work, I should be able to get up even earlier.’ And so he did. And this went on back and forth for a while – each one getting up earlier than the other. And they say that in this town the blacksmith made the rabbi frum and the rabbi make the blacksmith wealthy.

Here are five thoughts and recommendations on being a learner/earner:

  1. Become your own cheering section.
  2. It just takes two.
  3. Pick your peer pressure
  4. Form strong partnerships. And…
  5. Use technology to your advantage.

One: Become Your Own Cheering Section:

Learning is great but it’s not like work. Work has in it feedback mechanisms. You get paid. You have projects with start and stop dates. You have deals. You get praised. You get the glory.

Learning is more internal. You have good days. And you have challenging days. It’s hard to measure your progress. And everyday you back up and review. And each day you realize how deep the Gemara is and how much you know but – at the same time – how much you don’t know.

But there are rewards and they are there for the taking. There are two types of reward, but they have to come from you: the first is internal and the second is eternal. You have to make your own reward and feedback – that’s internal. But the only way to do that is by focusing on the eternal – what your real reward is.

Let me address the internal. There is a well-known mishnah in Pirkei Avot, ethics of the fathers: Ben Zoma says: “Who is wise? He who learns from every person. Who is strong? He who subdues his nature. Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot. Who is honored? He who honors others.” A very powerful mishnah, but a very curious one, because that’s not how the world defines wisdom, strength, wealth and honor. But there is another important aspect to each of these traits: the only way to achieve them is through your own perspective. No one else can make you rich, strong, honored, or wise. It’s up to you to create your own rewards.

Similarly in learning, you have control over how to you view your progress. I will come back to this point in a few moments.

Two: It just takes two:

I have discovered something that is better than sliced bread. It’s better than the iPad. It’s better than Facebook. Hard to believe. It’s called: learning b’chavruta, with a partner. With all due respect to learning in a shiur (Torah class) or learning by yourself, a shiur or learning on your own just doesn’t cut it. When you learn in a group, there’s no internal pressure to really get it. And it’s usually on someone else’s timetable and at someone else’s speed.

When you learn by yourself, it is not enough. Read the label on your Artscroll: it is an aid to Talmud study–not a replacement.

Learning by yourself or going to a shiur–you should see them as a prelude to learning with a chavruta.
For Shavuot, I used to go to shiurim and it would be a struggle to stay awake all night. Now, I learn b’chavruta and it is invigorating.

When you learn with a chavruta, there is no escape. You either get it or go over it again. You can’t hide in the crowd. But it’s better than that because when you learn with a partner you somehow bring out insights that you would not otherwise see. It is a marvelous way of learning.

Do not get me wrong. It is great to go to a shiur. It is great to pick up a sefer (Jewish book). But I have spent my professional career as an analyst trying to understand what works – what makes great investments. Learning with a chavruta is what works.

Three: Pick your peer pressure:

Here is how you can create a cheering section: pick the right peer pressure. Peer pressure is the most powerful influence in our lives. It is the key behind marketing because they know that we care what people think about us. It is the key behind social media because we want to know what people think.
You need to have the right peer pressure. But that’s one of the largest challenges about returning to the work world. It’s important to hang around with your colleagues at work, but that is not the peer pressure that you need. You need to hang around with people who are learning. Teaneck is good in that respect. Hang around with people who are learning or–better yet–you need to hang around with talmidei chachamim, (Torah scholars).

Four: Form strong partnerships:

It’s more than the partnership with your chavruta and choosing the right peer pressure. You have to form strong partnerships. I am talking about three types of partnerships.

First–with Hashem. This is where it all starts. Why is learning so challenging? Why can’t it be easy? Because Hashem wants us to earn it.

Another story: In Israel, keeping kosher can be complex. There are so many hechsherim (kosher certifications). My initial reaction was: it should be easier. You should be able to eat everything. After all, you’re in Israel. Keeping kosher should be easy there. And then I realized that when you are in Jerusalem you are closer to the center, closer to the Beit Hamikdash. When you have a minor cut, a Band-Aid suffices. When you have open heart surgery, you need the highest level of sterile environment. In Jerusalem, you need the highest level of stringency because we are closer to the center.

It’s the same with learning. When you are sitting down, you are getting closer to Hashem. That shouldn’t be easy because if it was easy then we wouldn’t care about it.

Second–your spouse. Another story. When we have a brit (ceremony of circumcision) we don’t say the bracha of yotzer ha-adam–thanking Hashem for creating man. When do we say it? We say it under the chuppah (marriage canopy) when a man gets married. Why do we say it then? Because a man is not complete until his wedding. There are 613 mitzvot but we can’t do them all because some are only for men and some are only for women. But when a man is married, he gets the credit for his wife’s mitzvot and she gets credit for his. It’s a partnership. So when I am learning, I am learning for the home team. When a woman stays home with the kids and sends her husband off to learn, they both get credit for the learning.

Third–your Rosh Yeshiva. You have an incredible resource in the Rashei Yeshivot in this town and, specifically, in this Yeshiva. They have an insight that relates to people. It’s a resource that you should use. Nancy and I have consulted with various Rashei Yeshivot over the course of our lives when we have big decisions. It’s not a crutch but it’s an incredible resource. They can help you when you are an earner/learner and then can also help you make the transition into becoming a learner/earner.

Five: Use technology to your advantage:

Finally, a practical insight on how to make the transition to learner/earner. Use technology to your advantage. Technology is both a blessing and a curse. If you think it’s a blessing, just wait–you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you think it’s a curse–same thing– just wait.

With all the wonderful things that come from technology, how can I say it is a curse? Because, first, it is all-consuming. It is intrusive. However, as observant Jews, we don’t realize how fortunate we are because we get a 25-hour break each week. Imagine how it is for the rest of the world that doesn’t get that break.

Another story: When I got out of college, I remember that the investment theme of the day was to own theme park and sporting good stocks–Disney and Rawlings–because technology was going to change our lives and we were going to have all this free time so we would be going to Disney World and playing sports. That’s not exactly the way things worked out.

And the key is that technology is going to accelerate. I work in technology. My business is to understand how things will change. The pace of change is accelerating. How are we going to be able to cope? How will be able to handle it.

We can use technology to our advantage.

Another true story: When I was at Bear Stearns we had a daily minyan (quorum of 10 men for prayer) at 1:45pm. I sometimes had meetings at that time but I wanted to carve out time for mincha, the afternoon prayer service. So I had a pager (you may have heard of them) and I would set it at 1:40 pm. When it would go off, I would look at my pager–it was really my alarm going off–and say, “Oh, it’s my Boss–I’ll be back in a few minutes.” I was telling the truth. It was my Boss but with a capital “B.” And off I would go to mincha.

We have got to get control of technology. It’s going to get better. Which means it’s going to get worse.

But to return to my earlier point: you need to focus on the rewards which are internal and eternal. I talked about creating the internal rewards. And you can create the eternal rewards.

The eternal rewards from learning are that it ties you to your parents, your grandparents and your earlier generations. And the other eternal reward is that learning ties you to your children and grandchildren.

Andrew Neff, who is a member of the board of the Orthodox Union, is a financial analyst working with technology companies. He was a leading securities analyst on Wall Street, spending 20 years at Bear Stearns, and was recognized by Institutional Investor and the Wall Street Journal as an All-Star. He lives (and learns) in Teaneck NJ.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.