What to Learn


A Yearning for Learning

We have a natural yearning for learning. Infants have an insatiable hunger, responding to each sight, sound, smell, taste, and tactile experience with curiosity. As toddlers, they roam everywhere, soaking in as much information as possible in their attempts to discover the nature of the world. This search for knowledge never ends. However, as we mature, the desire to discover and understand the world changes to a desire to discover ourselves.

The keys to discovery are learning and thinking about what we learn. Which is more helpful, thinking or learning? Well, both are essential, for as Confucius [1] taught, "Learning without thinking is useless; thinking without learning is dangerous." Nevertheless, since we have to learn something before we can think about it, let's focus on the subject of learning and begin by reviewing some of the common ways of learning.

Some of the Ways We Learn:

  • From positive experiences
  • From our mistakes
  • From personal study
  • By taking action
  • From others, for "When I am with others, they are my teachers. I can select their good points and follow them, and select their bad points and avoid them." (Confucius) But until we learn to respect others, we'll be unable to learn from them.

In a word, everyone and everything around us is our teacher.

You have acquaintances and friends, don't you? What's the difference between the two groups? Although acquaintances are people you know, friends are people you intimately know. It is friends that you turn to for help. It is similar with knowledge and learning. Knowledge is what is found in books and taught to us by teachers and others. But until we integrate that knowledge into our lives and make it a part of us, it is no more than an acquaintance with little value. Learning is the result of embracing knowledge and applying it to our lives. We may forget what we have read or heard, but we will always remember what we have learned.

The Purpose of Learning

Although there are many reasons to learn, Mortimer J. Adler [2] shares a major one, "The purpose of learning is growth, and our minds, unlike our bodies, can continue growing as we continue to live." Here are other reasons for learning: 

  • Self-empowerment, self-improvement, professional development. If we learn one new thing each day, we will soon pass the 'competition.'  
  • The more we learn about our world and life, the more at ease we will feel in it.  
  • Merely trying to be better makes us better.  
  • Technology is changing, world events are unfolding, and science is developing at a dizzying pace. We need to continue learning just to keep up.  
  • As long as we are learning, we never feel old.  
  • Learning makes life exciting.  
  • Men and women of learning are always comfortable, whether alone or with others.  
  • Is learning important? Well, it may not be compulsory, but neither is a happy life.  

Ray Palmer [3] summarizes this section: "Learning, if rightly applied, makes a young man thinking, attentive, industrious, confident, and wary; and an old man cheerful and useful. It is an ornament in prosperity, a refuge in adversity, an entertainment at all times; it cheers in solitude, and gives moderation and wisdom in all circumstances."

What to Learn

As the field of knowledge is unlimited and our life is not, we will have to choose what we wish to learn. Here are some subjects to consider: 

  • Because a positive attitude is a major key to success and happiness, it should be on the top of the agenda for anyone who needs help in this area.  
  • What is your purpose? What is important to you? How do you wish to contribute to life?  
  • What do you need to do to maximize your potential?  
  • We create our lives by the choices we make. What choices should you be making?  
  • Learning from our mistakes is great, but we can learn more from what works than from what doesn't. So, be pragmatic, more concerned about what works than theoretical knowledge.  
  • We are blessed to live in the age of the Internet (the world's largest library) and Wikipedia (the world's largest encyclopedia), for access to both is at our fingertips. But because there is as much misinformation and disinformation available as information, use critical thinking. Consider the sources. Don't be duped. Or, as John Locke [4] put it, "Till a man can judge whether they be truths or not, his understanding is but little improved, and thus men of much reading, though greatly learned, but may be little knowing."  
  • Learn the benefits of doing good. Kindness is the grease that eliminates the friction between people.  
  • Learn how little you know. It'll keep you humble and motivate you to learn more. Speaking about humility, Einstein [5] gives us a good reason for being humble, "The difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to that which is unknown."  
  • Learn to ask questions. Rudyard Kipling [6] explains why, "I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were Where, What, When, Why, How, and Who."  
  • Question your assumptions, opinions, and beliefs. They may be obstacles to learning. Often, before we can learn something new, we must unlearn a false belief.  
  • Learn to play, relax, and take time for reflection. Take breaks to absorb what you've learned, and balance work with recreation.  
  • An important part of learning is experiential. Experience and book knowledge are world's apart, or as Luciano Pavarotti [7] said, "Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail."  
  • There's nothing you can do to change your IQ, but you can significantly improve your EQ (Emotional Quotient) and AQ (Adversity Quotient). Your EQ determines how well you can get along with others while your AQ determines your resilience or how well you can cope. Regarding resilience, consider these words of Jon Kabat Zinn [8], "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf."  
  • To get the most from life, study how life works, or the laws of life. Seneca [8] expressed it this way, "As long as you live, keep learning how to live."  
  • Learn your rights and how to stand up for yourself and others.  
  • Take advantage of learning tools, such as concept mapping, which will help clarify your thinking as you learn. You can download excellent, free concept mapping software here: http://cmap.ihmc.us/  

Caveats

  • The first step to learning is recognizing our own ignorance.  
  • Beware of believing you understand experiences you've never had. Don't judge the actions of those carrying burdens you never had to bear.  
  • Don't try to take shortcuts. First learn the trade; then learn the tricks of the trade.  
  • Don't let your learning go to your head. The moment we act arrogantly, we prove our ignorance.  
  • Put your heart into your learning. "Learn as though you would never be able to master it; hold it as though you would be in fear of losing it." (Confucius)  
  • Here are some wise words by Bill Gates [10], "We all learn best in our own ways. Some people do better studying one subject at a time, while some do better studying three things at once. Some people do best studying in a structured, linear way, while others do best jumping around, 'surrounding' a subject rather than traversing it. Some people prefer to learn by manipulating models, and others by reading."  
  • When studying, choose authors because of the wisdom they posses rather than the number of degrees they hold.  
  • The more we study, the more we realize how little we know. Don't let this discourage you. Rather, enjoy the awe-inspiring mystery of life and the cosmos.  
  • Relish learning, but don't neglect common sense.  
  • When studying, embrace what is useful; dispense with what is useless, and adapt it to your way of thinking. Also, keep in mind that what is not useful today may be useful tomorrow.  
  • When you have completed your learning, it is time to start new learning, for "He who adds not to his learning diminishes it." (The Talmud [11])  
  • If you're not asking questions; beware, because you're not learning anything.  
  • "There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and this is not learning from experience." (Laurence J. Peter [12])  
  • Remember, the most important rule of learning is, do not unlearn useful information that you have already learned.  
  • "Take good hold of instruction and don't let her go, keep her for she is your life." (Proverbs 4:13)

 Two Learning Exercises

1. Make a list of what you have learned from life. What are your "Laws of Life"? Make a list and keep adding to it. For example, here is a partial list of what I have learned from life: 

  • We reap what we sow.  
  • People are the source of our power. The more we get along with others, the more powerful we become.  
  • We get from life what we give to it.  
  • Adversities strike, but they will pass.  
  • If we work twice as hard as others, we will learn twice as fast.  
  • No one owns the truth, the truth is shared by all.  
  • There is no evil in the world; it exists only in our minds. 'Evil' is a label that we attach to events, things, and people we do not agree with. Helen Keller [13] explains what I mean, "We could never learn to be brave and patient, if there were only joy in the world."  

2. Set your learning goals. Choose three things you want to learn before you die. Next, work backwards listing three things you want to learn in the next twenty years, ten years, five years, this year, this month, this week and finally, three things you wish to learn today. 

Conclusion

I'll conclude by sharing four quotes from different times and places. 

"The man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after." (Newton D. Baker [14]) 

"Try to learn something about everything and everything about something." (Thomas H. Huxley [15]) 

"Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere." (Chinese Proverb) 

"Learning is the best of all wealth;
"it is easy to carry,
"thieves cannot steal it,
"the tyrants cannot seize it;
"neither water nor fire can destroy it;
"and far from decreasing, it increases by giving."
(Naladiyar [16]) 

[1] Confucius (551~479 BC, Chinese ethical teacher, philosopher)
[2] Mortimer J. Adler (1902~2001, American educator, philosopher)
[3] Ray Palmer (1808~1887, American clergy and poet)
[4] John Locke (1632~1704, British philosopher)
[5] Albert Einstein (1879~1955, German-born American physicist)
[6] Rudyard Kipling (1865~1936, British author of prose and verse)
[7] Luciano Pavarotti (1935~2007, world renowned opera singer)
[8] Jon Kabat-Zinn (born 1944, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School; student of Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center; teaches mindfulness meditation as a technique to help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain and illness.)
[9] Lucius Annaeus Seneca, (circa 4 BC~ 65 AD, Seneca the Younger, Roman philosopher and playwright, tutor and advisor of Nero)
[10] Bill Gates (Born 1955, American computer genius, businessman, co-founder of Microsoft, philanthropist)
[11] The Talmud (c. 200 and 500 CE, the central text of mainstream Judaism, in the form of a record of rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history)
[12] Laurence J. Peter (1919~1990, scholar, author of The Peter Principle)
[13] Helen Keller (1880~1968, American blind/deaf author and lecturer)
[14] Newton D. Baker (1871~1937, urban reformer, Woodrow Wilson's second secretary of war)
[15] Thomas H. Huxley (1825~1895, British biologist, educator)
[16]  Naladiyar (c.5th~6th century, Tamil ethical literature,
http://www.sacred-texts.com/journals/ia/nldr.htm)

© Chuck Gallozzi
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