Knowledge Is Not Power! But What Is?

Ina Catrinescu: author, consultant, trainer, and founder of SHFT Happens is hosting a webinar for us in May on the topic of Creative Problem Solving. She kindly shared this great article with us as a prequel to the session.

"I own a large shoebox of certificates. Qualifications. Degrees. Diplomas. 

I’ve earned one-and-a-half Bachelor’s degrees, an Executive Master of Science, and a pile of tertiary qualifiers: PRINCE2, MSP (Microsoft Certified Professional), Norton Commander, Time Management, Media Training, Yoga Teacher, Generative Change Coaching, French, Emotional Intelligence…the list goes on. 

Ina CatrinescuI raced through life throwing into my ‘career goody-bag’ all sorts of crafts, skills and knowledge, in the hope that it will bring me success and fulfilment, only to arrive at this end of the race, exhausted and worn out, forced to face the reality that what I‘ve got in my bag is moth-eaten and devoid of value. 


What I learned yesterday, is no longer relevant today. The task that we perform today will be technologically obsolete tomorrow. The society where we got educated and then did the same thing for the rest of our life, is extinct. Knowledge is fleeting.  


“Knowledge is power” has been a philosophy we borrowed from the left brainers, designed to favor cold logic over emotion. Business leaders realize now that this philosophy has done more damage than good. Sure, knowledge is powerful, but to  help you determine for yourself whether it is “power,” let me ask you this question: How many times in the past week have you made a decision that somebody else, one, two or even four levels below you could’ve made? And if you still insist that, “Knowledge is power,” let’s take a quick look at one of the most powerful people today. Trump. I rest my case. 



I spent at least 60K on my education. The best that that money has bought me was not knowledge, but a ticket into a network of executives (during my Executive MSc) who later opened doors during my independent consulting phase. My ‘smartest’ decisions in life have not been those that revolved around knowledge, but have been those that were related to people or technology. And I attribute this to one superpower no education has taught me: Meta-skills.  

To ensure we thrive as individuals, businesses and on an economic and a societal level, we all need to develop new ways of learning and interacting with data and the world around us. These abilities are meant not just to help us cope with ongoing change. They are skills to excel; to collaborate and empathize with others and to create our own futures. 

These skills for the future are termed ‘meta-skills’. They are defined as timeless, higher order skills that create adaptive learners and promote success in whatever context the future brings. These are the skills that enable individuals to perform highly today.

Our success in the future will not depend on what we know but will be a function of our ability to influence others and learn fast. The Social Hyper-learner is in demand. 

But, if you, like me, have lived a life convinced that knowledge is noble and emotions are a nuisance, in a culture that conflates IQ with success, it’s going to take more than a few speculations to convince you that spending all those years and money on a degree might not have been the smartest decision after all.


"I know kung fu." You might remember this line from "The Matrix”? To learn kung-fu all Neo had to do is upload a learning module, jack a computer into his skull and kick back and relax. An instant later, he’s on the practice floor, sparring with Morpheus with black-belt skill and mastery. 

This is unfortunately not the reality we live in, but it describes the romanticism with which we approach education and organizations approach learning and development. We upload the latest, most sophisticated e-learning class online, or invite a consultant to hold a two-day workshop, and then kick back and relax, expecting the high potentials to come out impregnated with knowledge and equipped with black belts and ready for “combat”. In the US alone corporations spend about $60 billion a year training their employees. This is an enormous investment, and yet, research shows that employees retain only a small fraction of all that training content. How much of it actually gets transferred back to the workplace? Certainly, not a $60 billion-worth; not even 1% of that worth. Not convinced that this is a waste of financial resources and time? Read on. 



Neuroscience divides memory into three phases: encoding, storage, and retrieval. Most education programs emphasize the encoding phase. We try to author training that has clear learning objectives and that is relevant, engaging, and compelling. We leave the storing of that information up to the subjects themselves. But that’s a costly mistake. More than storing information, our brain is preoccupied with dismissing or forgetting it. In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus conducted a study on human forgetting and found that forgetting happens incredibly fast. After only an hour, we forget more than 50 percent of content. By the end of the day we forget about 70 percent. These findings have been replicated by researchers thousands of times in different contexts. The general conclusion is that brains--no matter the age, no matter how packed with grey matter, no matter how motivated--forget information at an alarming rate. Yet both we, as individuals, as well as our employers, continue to spend billions of dollars knowing very well that most of that knowledge will be forgotten. We keep pumping gas into a tank that has a hole in it. And no one is fixing the leak.



Remember, less than twenty years ago, before the Internet devoured the newspaper, when you had to walk down to the newsstand for your daily dose of old news? Remember the slick petroleum smell of ink from the warm, freshly printed paper? We got supermarket ads and cooking tips on Mondays; Real estate and automobile promotions on Thursdays and our weekly fix of comics on Sundays. 

Today, at the swipe of a finger, you get all of that and beyond (less the ink smell). Can you imagine the surge of superfluous minutia that our brain is forced to sift and sort through ad nauseam in this day and age? A study, led by Roger Bohn, at the University of California-San Diego, estimated that we are inundated with the equivalent amount of 34Gb (gigabytes) of information every day. That is a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week! 

We didn’t really speak in bytes in the 1960s, thus to draw comparisons we’d need to use a different metric: numbers of words. 34Gb is equivalent to 100,000 words per person per day. Ithiel de Sola Pool, a revolutionary in the field of social sciences, estimated that 4,500 trillion words were “consumed” in 1980. In 2008, according to Bohn, this number has more than doubled to 10,845 trillion! But that was before Facebook reached 100 million users and Twitter finally took off in 2012. The data smog has grown so thick since, it’s not only beyond our control and ability to measure; It’s beyond our imagination.    

More knowledge equals more effort for our brain to forget. Force-feeding our minds with knowledge is detrimental to our health.

Over the past ten thousand years, evolution has munched up about an apple-sized chunk of our mighty brains. Our brains are shrinking. By comparison, if our bodies shrunk at the same speed, we’d now weigh no more than 30 kilograms and stand no taller than 1.4 meters. How does science explain this unnerving statistic? Brains are energetically expensive to us. The mega-structure we carry on top of our shoulders consumes on average a fifth of our body’s total energy. A fifth!  

We are metabolically challenged to sustain the demands of the current economy. And with all the upsurge of knowledge that we’re flooded with, something’s got to give. Our brains, as the main source of energy consumption, are the most obvious target. The fact that we increasingly rely on external sources of information storage and processing: our telephones, computers and the cloud, moreover means that the modern human can afford this tradeoff.  

We are not only taxing our brains with the heavy burden of consuming, but also with the burden of constantly detoxifying. If we were to compare the Internet to alcohol, then a part of our brain acts as the liver in processing and detoxifying the blood. Just like the liver, our brains can only handle so much at once. Excessive consumption taxes our body’s energy reserves which means that there will eventually come a payback time, even if it’s just in the form of a mild hangover. If in the 1990s we could only handle a bottle of wine before we went under the table, today we’re loading ourselves up with a whole barrel and expect to feel no different than we did back in the 1990s.  


Albert Einstein wrote, “Education is that which remains after we have forgotten everything we learned in school.” While modern educators see the student as clean slate, or “tabula rasa” there, to be filled with facts and information, the ancient educators believed that wisdom came from within. In classical Athens applying various techniques, great teachers, like Socrates, drew out their students subtle perceptions. This, the art of drawing out of knowledge from your own unconscious is in fact the original meaning of the word “educate”. It comes from the Latin educare, which translates as “to draw out”. 

The median career length today is less than 6 years. Half of us change careers - not just jobs - in 6 years or less. So the million dollar question then is, “How do we define success in the future?” Will success be a function of being able to re-qualify and get a different degree every 6 years? Or is success about being open-minded enough to let the Renaissance man in each of us emerge; becoming Jacks and Jills of All Trades - Jedi-decision makers, on-demand innovators, intuitive rationalists, heartful analysts? 

Want to join Ina's Webinar on Creative Problem Solving? You can sign up today! FREE to all PWN Members, and a small charge for non-members.


Ina Catrinescu is an author, consultant, trainer, and founder of SHFT Happens - an educational company specialized in Emotional Intelligence, Generative Change and the art and science of the unconscious mind. She started her career as a Change Management consultant leading global adoption initiatives at Fortune Global 500 companies and is also the author of Burnout to Breakthrough and Love of Fate.


Author: Ina Catrinescu
Date: January 2019

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