Discovering the Importance
of Life Learning as an Adult
By Valerie Jocums
Could a practice of life learning fix the malaise
of my life?
A lament of mine has always been that I was not a
genius. I was not afraid of the social awkwardness that often comes with
being brilliant; I wanted to be so passionate and engrossed in something
that it became a driving force in my life.
Intellectually, I realized that work/life balance
is important, but emotionally I wanted to feel that overwhelming passion
to create or solve something. In real life, I have always been more of a
Girl Friday. Things will fascinate me for a while and then I get bored.
This restlessness has affected my career. Actually, I feel I don’t really
have a career, because I have not focused myself in any single area. Most
jobs have been at small organizations where I am able to fill multiple roles.
I do not excel at any one thing, but I can do multiple roles adequately.
For years, I have bemoaned my lack of focus and passion.
About five years ago, I found myself depressed, uninterested in my job,
and my life. I decided to start a search for something I could become passionate
about. This, as you might expect, lead me to reading many self-help books
and doing much research on the internet. It actually led me to discover
the website of Scott Young. He was an enterprising student (at the time)
and is currently a blogger who has explored rapid learning, immersion learning,
and productivity. If you are unfamiliar with him,
he has completed
three large projects. First, he learned MIT’s four-year undergraduate
computer science curriculum in one year without taking any classes. Two
years later, he endeavored to learn four new languages in a year, by traveling
to those countries and not speaking English while there. His third project
was to improve his drawing skills in a month.
He undertook these projects to discover quicker,
more effective ways to study and learn. His discipline and interest fascinated
me, but I was not that motivated. However, it did get me interesting in
learning. I started exploring MOOCs and apps like Duolingo. Then I started
reading about life learning and autodidacts.
I did not really know anything about the ideas behind
life learning and autodidactism. I knew of many great minds (da Vinci, Benjamin
Franklin, Thomas Edison) who had been largely self-taught, but I considered
them to be anomalies; those geniuses I so wanted to be like. I knew people
who always managed to take a community class every year, even a few people
that would take a few college classes just for fun, but I didn’t consider
this as a way of life. However, this concept of life learning – consciously
and thoughtfully learning all the time – really struck home with me.
I realized that being a genius was not the solution
to my problem (as if I had a choice, but what a good excuse for not moving
forward). It would not automatically guarantee being passionate about something.
Curiosity was the solution. When had I lost my interest in discovering why?
I knew when I lost interest; it was in college. At
a time when I should have been excited about exploring my options for a
major and eventually a career, my only thought was about getting through
it. I don’t know when the goal of graduating became the focus instead of
the learning, but I didn’t do any intellectual exploring. Look where that
got me: no career, and a sense of being lost.
Realizing how bored and disinterested I had become
gave me a new direction. I have since turned off the TV and I carefully
choose the books I read. So far, my problem has been deciding what exactly
to focus on. I have given my curiosity free rein and it has multiple subjects
it wants to explore: quantum physics, spirituality, animal behavior, the
brain, math, and learning. I found myself trying to read multiple books
on different subjects all at the same time. Yes, I had let loose my curiosity
and it was going wild.
However, I still felt a lack of focus. All of this
reading was interesting, but it wasn’t really moving me forward. If I focused
on facts instead of ideas, I could go on Jeopardy! As children, this type
of exploration of topics is a positive thing. In theory, it will allow them
to find an area of study that does interest them and they can focus their
studies. As an adult, I felt silly. Honestly, I felt I should know more
about myself, so that I could focus in one area.
Sometimes, I am a little slow. I eventually realized
that the sense of curiosity is what keeps us young. The
benefits of autodidactism not only include breathing new life into your
career and professional life, but a healthier mind. This hit home to me
when I saw my dad lose interest in life and give up. My father was always
busy and always reading. He was more of a doer than an intellectual, but
he knew how to think. As he got older, he had lost interest in new subjects.
We couldn’t even get him to read a new book; he just kept rereading old
books from his collection. When he had his stroke, he just gave up. It was
painful to watch him slowly slip away from us. With my experience of malaise
and depression, I could easily see myself doing the same thing. So I am
celebrating my excitement about learning.
However, since I am not a child with large blocks
of free time, I did feel a need for some structure. Based on my research,
the famous autodidacts didn’t just learn for the sake of learning, but rather
to move themselves forward in their endeavors. So I gave myself the same
criteria for my intellectual explorations.
Now, my first rule is to focus on subjects that will
move me forward. I have been known to go on tangents that, while interesting,
are not a serious interest. For instance, I once digressed into how to weave
using a loom. I explored the subject solidly for about a week, to point
of making a little model loom to test out. It was interesting, but that
knowledge will not help me make progress in other areas of my life, and
I knew it. I do still indulge those tangents, but in my downtime.
My second new educational rule is to stay with one
subject, one book, at a time. I am not completely successful at this, but
I have managed to stop at reading two books going simultaneously. I find
that by concentrating on one subject, I am able to quickly get an overview,
and decide if this subject will help me improve my spiritual practice, help
me with my writing, or is maybe even a path to a career. If the answer is
yes, then I learn more about the subject. I haven’t found anything yet that
has led me to more that two or three books, but my list of books to read
keeps getting longer.
It seems obvious to me now that life learning is
imperative if we wish to stay interested and engaged in life. However, people
all around me don’t practice it. They might read the newspaper or an interesting
biography on a regular basis, but I don’t see them actively seeking out
knowledge. I see my mom slowly losing interest in learning new things, as
my father did before her. Even in her quilting, if a new technique has a
steeper learning curve, she gives up. While I try to encourage her to keep
her mind active, the only thing I can control is my own engagement.
As a society, our access to information is at an
all-time high. The Internet not only allows us to easily communicate with
people from all over the world, but it gives us access to free learning
through MOOCs and learning apps. If we are really excited by a subject,
but are not near a college, we can even go to college online. If your local
library does not have a book, you can probably get it electronically. There
is no reason for us to stop learning. Learning has rescued me from the malaise
brought on by depression and frustration with a life without interest or
Valerie Jocums, after many years of working
in small business, is now exploring her interests and passions through life
learning. She loves the sun, her Australian Shepherd dog, and her husband.
When she isn’t mountain biking, practicing her public speaking skills, or
reading, she is writing about everything she has learned. You can follow
her on Twitter: @vkjocums.
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