Know-it-all vs learn-it-all

Know-it-all vs learn-it-all

People cannot know everything as a practical matter, so they must instead dedicate themselves to being lifelong learners.

One of the many things I have learned from many years working in executive education is that learning truly never stops. Whether I am seeking to develop myself or to help my clients or staff advance, learning is the only way to improve.

For example, you may have recently completed a course and feel you know enough about the subject at hand, but the truth is that learning cannot stop there. Even if you think you've learned enough from your experiences and achieved a level of success, it doesn't mean the success will continue.

We must all stop trying to become a "know-it-all" and aim to be a "learn-it-all". I first came across the learn-it-all concept when I watched an interview with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella. It caught my attention because it relates to me and my company's mission to nurture lifelong learning for the future, and because of the obvious contrast with "know-it-all".

The fact is that we all want to know everything and become experts in our field -- this is probably why we learn, practise and master a topic or skill. But it is almost impossible to know everything, especially these days when knowledge is expanding so rapidly.


The example that Satya Nadella shared to describe know-it-alls and learn-it-alls came from a book called Mindset by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University. It describes two children -- a know-it-all and a learn-it-all. The learn-it-all, however, seems to always do better, even if the know-it-all starts out with better capabilities. This is applicable to everyone, and here's why:

The first difference between the two concepts is growth. While a know-it-all may have certain capabilities already, they will just remain the same if the person believes there is nothing left to know. Meanwhile, a learn-it-all aims to learn anything and everything, constantly developing and growing for the better.

The second difference is focus. Know-it-alls believe they have reached the potential of their knowledge and understanding of a topic, so their focus is on being the experts they believe themselves to be. A learn-it-all, on the other hand, focuses on always being a beginner and that there's always something new to learn, no matter how accomplished you already are in a topic or skill.

The third difference is mindset. A know-it-all may not be open to new things because their belief is that they already know everything they need to know. This often becomes a source of conflict as their view is that they're right. A learn-it-all has a mindset that if you don't unlearn what is now irrelevant and make room for new knowledge, you will get left behind.

The fourth difference is the approach to learning. A know-it-all may know all the facts and theories but sometimes doesn't test the truth behind them or even try to put them into practice. A learn-it-all tries to test what they know and put it into practice to see if it's right, almost like a scientist testing a hypothesis.

The fifth and final difference is learning appetite. A know-it-all assumes they already know enough so their learning appetite is limited. But a learn-it-all is curious, constantly asking questions because they truly want to understand something at a deeper level.


The differences are clear, and it is obvious which type of person is preferred in this day and age. Being a learn-it-all means understanding that there is always something new to learn. Even though we know something really well, we can still learn more. The key to this is to nurture a lifelong learner mindset -- everything, even change, begins when you begin learning.

Think about this scenario: A computer can be programmed to know and do so many things. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are just a few of the advances we are seeing today. However, even the most advanced machines and AI applications are still limited to what they've been programmed to do or have learned.

The same goes for humans. Your mind is a complex network and we cannot possibly know everything. Even our memory and capabilities are limited. Furthermore, as our world changes, some of the knowledge we've acquired may no longer be useful -- this means we unlearn those things and relearn what is relevant.

As Eric Hoffer, the American moral and social philosopher, once said: "In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

As long as change is constant, learning must also be constant -- that's if you want to get better and keep up with change.

Arinya Talerngsri is chief capability officer and managing director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup), Southeast Asia's Lifelong Learning Center. She can be reached by email at or visit for more information.

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