On Learning

Confession No. 04: I love learning. (One could even say I’m a nerd.)

From the time I was very young, I have been fascinated by many things. I think this is partially due to the fact that I grew up with a father who relaxes by expanding his brain – my dad loves to watch home and cooking shows as well as documentaries on TV, so I grew up watching HGTV more than Family channel, often missing the shows my peers loved to watch.

Before we even began learning the basic principles of multiplication in school, my father was teaching me my times-tables. I loved every research project I was assigned in class, especially when I had a say in the specific topic I would learn about. I would spend hours and hours finding recipes and exercise programs for girls I was coaching and loved to out try new recipes when I had the chance. Around the time I was sixteen, I began reading non-fiction books for fun because, why not?

Over the years, I have accumulated an assortment of facts and knowledge. You never know when a piece of information will come in handy, so I try to soak up as much as I can.

For me, research is relaxing. I am being productive (I tell myself) because even if I don’t use the information for this specific task, I am building my brain muscles and creating new connections between neurons. I love to discover the links between seemingly disparate ideas and pull them together in a way that makes them easier to understand. It is extremely satisfying, this kind of work, and I am lucky enough to get to do it every day.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came when I read Liz Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Gilbert encourages readers to “follow their curiosities” and explains what this looks like in her own life. In this conversation with podcast host Jonathan Fields, Gilbert explains how people often think the opposite of depression is happiness, but it’s not. The opposite of depression is curiosity. The moment you stop believing that tomorrow will be any different from today, that is the moment you will lose your zest for life. Each day is a beautiful opportunity to learn something new, but it’s so easy to forget that.

The truth is, you will never know all there is to know.

I find this fact simultaneously thrilling, humbling, and utterly inspiring. If I will never know all there is to know, then there will always be something new for me to discover tomorrow. Your learning doesn’t stop when your formal education does; in fact, that is when the real learning begins.

This is not to say I have always loved the process of learning – there have been many times when I definitely have not. I am, by nature, a bit of a perfectionist, and learning can be quite messy at times. I have always had a bit of an aversion to being judged for my learning because I hate feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t say I hated tests and exams because I loved the feeling of satisfaction I got when I did well, but I definitely did not enjoy the criticism that came when I did not. Then again, I don’t think anyone does.

I did well in school because I paid attention in class and often found the subjects quite interesting. If I found the teacher boring or I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I would just do the research on my own. I didn’t really mind taking tests, but the minute my grades slipped below ninety, I would cringe; below eighty, I told myself to work harder – that wasn’t good enough.

Perfection was my highest goal, but that shouldn’t have been my focus. That is not what learning is about.

Learning is the process of growing, of becoming wiser and stronger than you were the day before. Everyone learns in different ways, and I’ve always learned best by doing things for myself. A teacher can speak for hours about a subject, but those formulas and theories will mean nothing to mean until I put them to use. I learned early on that I remembered things better if I wrote them down. The best way for me to understand a language or equation was for me to smash it into bite-sized pieces and repeat the steps over and over again.

These are the strategies that work best for me, but what works for me will not work for everyone. I was able to do well in school because I did the work and figured out how I learn best. This is not the case for many people, however, and it frustrates me to think there are people who leave school thinking they’re stupid. No person on earth is truly stupid – we are all intelligent in our own way.

For the last few centuries, we’ve spent our time focused on the wrong question. The question shouldn’t be, “are you smart?” based on some grades on a paper somewhere. School should be about helping each child discover their strengths and the places they need to improve. The question we should be asking is, “How are you smart, and how can the world benefit from that?”

Sometimes I forget my love of learning. Sometimes I can only see all the ways in which life is hard. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I do not know and the uncertainty that goes along with being a new adult. But if I have learned one thing, it is this: no one ever really has everything figured out.

You can look at a stranger and think they have a perfect life, that everything must be so easy and they know exactly where they’re going – but I can almost guarantee this is a lie. You don’t know their whole story. The masters know the secret to mastery is to maintain a beginners mind. The more you learn, the more you understand there is so much more to learn, and so you must remain humbly open to anyone who might teach you something as you journey along your path.

As we approach the beginning of autumn and the start of a new school year, I have to admit it’s a little strange not to be heading back to school. The structure and safety of being in school are, in some ways, all I’ve ever known. They are things you take for granted until you step out into the real world and realize there is so much more at stake. Once you graduate from school, you are responsible for your one precious life. No one will make things happen for you if you are never willing to take the first step.

Sometimes, taking the first step means stumbling. Sometimes it means falling flat on your face. Notice I did not say that taking the first step can lead to failure because you never truly fail until you give up. If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail – you only added to your knowledge of what not to do next time.

These days, my days are filled to the brim with learning: learning about myself and my work and my world, how to process pain and cultivate joy and what it is to be alive on this planet that is just bursting with life.

It’s a beautiful thing, this kind of learning, no matter how challenging it may be. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world. Every day is an adventure when you are acting as your own tour guide because the value lies not in the place you are going but rather the person you become along the way.

So take the time to enjoy your journey and rest assured – one step at a time, you will get where you are going one day.