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Discovering the Importance of Life Learning as an Adult

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 excitement.

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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