Ndamukong Suh – A Lifelong Learner to Learn From

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on the back page of the “Personal Journal” section titled “The Bruiser and the Billionaire.”  A truly inspiring read for anyone interested in lifelong learning!

Detroit Lions’ defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, the subject of this article (the “Bruiser” of the title), is a really smart guy, who has been preparing for his post-football career for years (he’s only 27).  His college major was construction management, and Suh credits the many engineering classes he took with developing his ability to problem-solve.  Suh also learned how to manage his time in such a way that lifelong learning has become part of his daily routine:

Everyone says, “Wait til [sic] your football career is over.” Or the biggest saying is always “Life after football.”  But as an athlete, someone who is bright enough and understands how to compartmentalize, and has time management from already having two jobs at once—playing football and going to class and getting good grades—you can have 70 to 90% of the focus on your ultimate job but at the same time slowly build to what you are going to be one day.

Suh first met Warren Buffett (the “Billionaire,” obviously 🙂 ) at a game during his time playing college football for Nebraska.  Because Suh hoped to learn as much from the Bershire Hathaway chairman as possible, his coach helped put them together again.  The two men have developed a mentoring relationship, and Suh has also routinely met with other athlete/businessmen like Magic Johnson, Roger Staubach, and Junior Bridgeman (a former Milwaukee Bucks player I remember from his days on the team).

In fact, Suh devotes every Tuesday, his day off from his job as a professional football player, to talking with advisors and studying contracts—in short, to learning about business and finance.

A similar learning culture has been created at many innovative companies, a culture that encourages continual self-directed learning among the employees.  Google has its famous 20% time.  Pixar University (described in this 2006 New York Times article) encourages all employees to spend four hours every week taking classes to learn about some aspect of film making.  Randy S. Nelson, dean of Pixar University, subsequently moved on to Apple and is now the Director of Apple University.  And for about 65 years 3M has encouraged its employees to spend about 15% of their working time on their own projects, resulting in innovations like Post-it Notes (see the company’s “Time to Think” page describing their 15 Percent Time).

The Pareto Principle (better known as the 80/20 rule) states that approximately 80% of your results arise from 20% of your causes.  I’m misusing the concept here a little, but looking at Ndamukong Suh’s time management strategy for spending one day per week to learn about business and finance while spending the rest of his work week focusing on his highly successful NFL career seems instructive.

Comedian Jay Leno “reportedly lives off of revenue from stand-up gigs and banks the rest,” according to Forbes magazine’s profile on the former “Tonight Show” host.  That’s not quite the same thing, either.  But Leno recognized that television is fickle.  An interview/profile published in The Wall Street Journal on August 21, 2009, described Leno’s practice in a way that sounds remarkably similar to Ndamukong Suh’s time management strategy:

Using a tactic he picked up as a teenager juggling jobs at McDonald’s and a local Ford dealership, Mr. Leno lives off his earnings from doing stand-up and banks his NBC salary, he says. “It just keeps your head straight,” he says. “In TV they can fire your ass at any minute for whatever reason. OK, I’ll be in Vegas.”

Opting not to depend on “The Tonight Show” for a living gave Leno the freedom to create  a nightly show that could take more chances, be more “out there” than it might have been had financial security been a primary concern.

So here is my takeaway from the Ndamukong Suh article.  When it comes to self-directed learning, innovation, and creative exploration, a strategy of “compartmentalizing”—keeping safe some small but significant percentage of your time/money (time is money in some ways, right?)—seems essential for any person or organization seeking growth.


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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