If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way

We should be careful of the curse of quotes.

A good quote is a dangerous thing, its pithy cleverness can suggest a lot more wisdom than is actually present.

This is a danger much amplified by social media.

A superficial clever-sounding meme can spread like a pandemic before a much wiser nuanced opinion has got its shoes on.

To paraphrase Dan Dennett’s brilliant word deepity*, I call these truthities: “a claim that appears true because it is so brilliantly phrased, but is in fact false or misleading”

On that positive note, I present below a list of quotes that I believe are true, wise and inspiring about the world of learning:

Quotes about learning

Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever

Mahatma Gandhi

A favourite because it also gives some meaning to life itself: live for now, but learn forever … this links to my favourite quote about the meaning of life (not specifically about learning):

To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better … This is the meaning of success

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A similar take on the meaning of life and how it links to learning and growth …

For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you

Neil deGrasse Tyson

A similar point from Heinlein:

Learning isn’t a means to an end; it is an end in itself

Robert Heinlein

A tough stance from Lincoln for those who don’t seek to learn and grow:

I don’t think much of a man who is not wiser today than he was yesterday

Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln mentions wisdom – an oft-misunderstood term that is not just a synonym for knowledge.

My definition is this: “the ability to know how and when to use your knowledge, experience and understanding to create positive outcomes

And talking of aspiring to wisdom …

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

Harry S Truman


Learning is not compulsory… neither is survival

W. Edwards Deming


If you not willing to learn, no one can help you
If you’re determined to learn, no one can stop you

Zig Ziglar

I put that quote in my children’s rooms to inspire them to study. They still think I’m lame.


I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it

Pablo Picasso

Yes! As Steve Radcliffe says, “know and go beyond your limits” – not too far, just try to do the next thing, draw that into your comfort zone, and then try the next.


Try to learn something about everything and everything about something

Thomas Huxley


You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over

Richard Branson

I love Branson’s irreverent ways, but Barrie put it better:

We are all failures- at least the best of us are

J.M. Barrie

And the irreverent bit is important too …

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it

Jacob Bronowski

So it’s vital to question – not with cynicism and arrogance, but with curiosity and yes, our old friend irreverence …

A wise man can learn more from a foolish question than a fool can learn from a wise answer

Bruce Lee

I find this inspiring when I fear looking stupid by asking a question I think I should know the answer to – doesn’t always work.

Or, to capture the point exactly:

Smart people don’t learn… because they have too much invested in proving what they know and avoiding being seen as not knowing

Chris Agyris


I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions

Lou Holtz

I don’t entirely agree with this one. I learn a lot through talk, the effort of trying to succinctly explain something forces a level of understanding, and, as the probability wave collapses when the box is opened, when we speak about something we’re forced to solidify what we think we understand.

I include it anyway because of the importance of asking questions as an aid to build knowledge and understanding, and as Einstein said:

Any fool can know. The point is to understand

Albert Einstein

… because he was patient and asked questions …

It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer

Albert Einstein


Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn

Benjamin Franklin

I never knew the above quote was Franklin until I compiled this list, it is now so familiar a quote that it feels almost clichéd, yet so much education is still tell and teach, not involve.


I am not a teacher, but an awakener

Robert Frost

Love that! What a gorgeous concept. Socrates said something similar:

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel



Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon

E.M. Forster

This is why I keep trying to get my children to load the dishwasher and take personal responsibility for things, but it’s hard bloody work.


Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is

Isaac Asimov

I think this is why change management models all start with some sort of desire to change, the “sense of urgency” (Kotter) – you have to want to change as the therapists say! Exactly the same is true for learning, because learning is change. Sort of.


Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned

Mark Twain

This is the opposite of a truthity, this isn’t something that looks clever but is really superficial or misleading; this brilliant quote is something that looks small but is actually huge because it argues we need to be skeptical as what we think we know, challenge our assumptions and paradigms, and be aware of our biases and – perhaps most difficult of all – be willing to be wrong.

Or, as Claude Bernard put it …

It is what we think we know already that often prevents us from learning

Claude Bernard

Having an open-minded learning mindset is the prerequisite to be able to learn from experience, otherwise you’re just experiencing stuff:

The man who is too old to learn was probably always too old to learn

Henry S. Haskins

And as John Dewey said:

We don’t learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience


Not learning, closing the mind, is synonymous with getting old …

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty

Henry Ford

And …

The quickest way to become an old dog is to stop learning new tricks

John Rooney

But …

I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught

Winston Churchill

A fault I share, but self-awareness is a powerful beast, so I have learnt to calm down when people try to tell me stuff.

But does learning lead to wisdom and change …

Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before

Kurt Vonnegut, Jr

It may sound odd but this is partly why I bought a Kindle. I have read so many books and not remembered a thing about them that I decided if I didn’t own the physical artifact (the book), I would have to retain the book in my head – not in its entirety, of course, but it would at least have to change me in some small way.

Now I make an effort after every book to think what it means for me and consciously try to change something.

I still forget almost everything I read, but it turns out that thinking about stuff is quite useful anyway:

Learning without thought is labor lost



The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn

Alvin Toffler


Never discourage anyone…who continually makes progress, no matter how slow



And to end with the great Mark Twain:

If you hold a cat by the tail you learn things you cannot learn any other way

Exactly, sometimes you just have to crack on with it and see what happens.


* A deepity is defined as “a claim that appears profound but is in fact a superficial equivocation” coined in 2000 by Dan Dennett (source)

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