Free learning is complex

When Googling Can Be Bad For Your Career

Marshmallows. Yep. Marshmallows.

Yeah wtf… I hear you say?

Stay with me.

In 1972, psychologist Walter Mischel published what became a groundbreaking study called the ‘Marshmallow Experiment’ (Mischel et al, 1972). In a nutshell, he took a sample of 32 children aged 3 to 6 and offered them all a marshmallow but gave them an option; either they could eat the marshmallow now, or if they waited 15 minutes they would be rewarded with two. The results were remarkable; in a number of follow up studies with the original participants, Mischel discovered that the children who could delay gratification and wait 15 minutes to get two marshmallows, scored higher in their SATs compared to children who ate the marshmallow immediately (Shoda et al,1990).

Now, what’s with the random marshmallow story I hear you cry? Well, today’s topic is on our good friend Google. Should you Google? Is Google the best way to learn Excel? Tempting of course, it’s free and right at our finger tips. But is that going to work? Nope. And the reason why it won’t work is based on Mischel’s marshmallow findings. Finding immediate answers and solutions to your Excel problems from random so called ‘excel experts’ on forums will not make you better at your job or increase your salary.

Here’s why.

We are living in the age of information. Gone are the days of stumbling back from the library with a wheelbarrow full of old dusty text books, asking the wise old lady down the road or even waiting till Monday morning, marching into your boss’s office and asking “who’s the Excel expert here, I’ve got a question!”

We don’t have to do that anymore, you want to know a little bit more about VLookups? You google it. Great right? Well… not entirely. Google has given us a massive repository of information available instantaneously but it’s also given us a massive repository of information from a bucket load of different sources and within those sources are people who aren’t necessarily qualified to give you the right answer. Most of the time we’re looking for the answer but not so bothered about whose giving it to us and because of our lack of delayed gratification and our reluctance to research good ways of learning, the first answer we stumble upon is normally adequate. But adequate isn’t going to improve your career or increase your salary.

If you are an analyst, an account, a PMO etc, using Google to master excel will take weeks, months and maybe even years. I have worked in these roles over the span of my 10 year career in Finance and so I know what Excel concepts you absolutely need to know in a professional context and equally, what you shouldn’t waste your time with. I’ve seen people learning Excel with Google. “Oh, this one forum a guy says to do this… but wait, PivotTable_26California says I should be doing X, Y and Z, he’s a Pivot Table EXPERT”. Yes, he might be a pivot table expert, but is he a professional? Are any of these people analysts, accountants, PMOs and people like you? Probably not (which is why they’re on forums!). Are you on a forum dispensing advice? No. I’ve done very little of it from time to time as a way of giving back (such a philanthropist, I know!). The best and the most frequent advisors on Google aren’t professionals, they’re experts in their fields. Being an expert at excel and having the right knowledge to master Excel in the professional world are VERY different things.

So what’s the solution for professionals wanting to learn Excel? You need two things;

1) The Right Curriculum. The RIGHT topics and not ALL the topics. It’s about quality not quantity. You need someone to cherry pick the relevant stuff for you and really focus on them, things such finding information, dealing with non numerical information and applying rules. I’ve had young, excitable professionals approach me in the past saying “I can do what if scenarios!” to which I normally laugh and ask WHY? Why did you learn that? You do not need it in a professional scenario. You’re wasting your time!

2) Structure. You need to learn things in a sequential manner. When you put together the right topics in the right order, things will start to make sense to you and it’ll be cohesive and coherent. When you go back to work and start solving problems you’ll realize not just the things you need but the things you DON’T need. And that’s FAR more valuable because that’s what excel experts like PivotTable_26California aren’t good at. They’re really bad at telling you what you don’t need to know, they’ll tell you need to learn everything (and to buy their courses no doubt) but you really don’t.

Ok so what if it does take me years to learn excel? At least its free. I’ll just take my time. Young people often say to me “I’m young, I’m 24, I have my whole career ahead of me”. You are the people in the Marshmallow experiment that failed to wait 15 minutes and who will do average in their careers. You just want to Google the answers (instant gratification) and you’re not thinking about your long term development or investing in yourself. People who invest in themselves are the MOST successful people because they take their future really seriously; they’re always looking forward. By investing money in yourself, by parting with money you’re taking a risk. When you take a risk you’re forced to follow through on your investment. People who are aren’t bothered about taking their time are robbing themselves of opportunities. If you learn excel quickly you’re going to move onto better roles quickly. Those better roles will require more advanced skills (which you’ll have!) and with those roles come greater salaries and quicker paths to promotions. Taking your time is shortsighted. If you keep investing, you keep accelerating.

Ok so NEVER use google? Does that mean I’m anti googling? Of course not. I actually use google with excel a lot. But there’s a specific way I use it. Here’s how. I know that if I have to write a complex formula it’ll take me about 45 minutes to build it. Although I know how to write the formula myself, googling most of it will take me about 5 minutes) and then tweaking it will take 2. I’ve saved myself more than half an hour and time for me, at this point in my career, is imperative. I’m fortunate in that I make a lot of money and I’m not sitting in my office counting stacks of cash – wondering how to make it grow, its about achievement for me and pushing myself to greater limits. But in order to do that, I need time. I need time to do more value add things for myself, I’m past the days of working out complex Excel things. I know that a lot of people reading this article might still be in the growing process and currently improving their excel skills but going through a structured course will get your excel skills really good so for when you do approach Google, you’re armed with all that lovely excel knowledge and it’ll be a totally different experience. Now you can use google to help you finish an hours task in five minutes. That’s how you SHOULD use google.


Absolutely use google to speed up your work and save time but wait until you’ve gone through structured learning before you do. Learning how to use Excel in a professional context through a well designed Excel training course is much more beneficial for your career in the long term, compared to spending hours taking advice from self proclaimed Excel ninjas on the internet. It might not cost you money but it will cost you your time and time is invaluable.

About the Author Earn & Excel

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