As my earlier post on reflection as a daily habit may suggest, I’ve been in a bit of a reflective mood lately, and one of the things on my mind is how I have tended to make the biggest learning “leaps” in my life. In so many cases they have had little to do with conventional education practices like sitting in a classroom or preparing for a test.
So far, I have come up with six underappreciated learning strategies that seem to have impacted me most or that I know others who are passionate about learning have used. Here they are. One big caveat, though – all of these require you to be mindful and reflect if you really expect to get a lot out of them.
One of the biggest barriers to learning and growing is simply staying in the same place for too long – whether that means the same office, the same relationship, the same job, or the same country. I don’t advocate disloyalty or irresponsible quitting, but sometimes you just have to move on.
For me, choosing to leave my first job and travel the world, and later to leave a high-paying job and start my first company were the beginnings of some of the most valuable learning experiences in my life. I think you see this strategy being pursued with vengeance through blogs like The Art of Nonconformity.
We rarely do anything to take risks and shake things up in our day-to-day life. That’s usually fine – no one wants to live in a state of constant disruption – but sometimes you have to push boundaries, add some stress, go to extremes if you want to learn.
You can do this in remarkably simple ways. For example, I love Tim Ferriss’ challenge in The 4-Hour Work Week to “eye gaze,” or practice maintaining direct eye contact with everyone you meet. It’s amazing how uncomfortable an experience this can be, but it offers some great lessons in human nature.
Of course, learning doesn’t have to be about radical change or disruption. As my previous post on making reflection a habit suggests, learning also comes to those who sit quietly.
I have always been fascinated by the Zen practice of zazen, which involves concentration, introspection, but above all just sitting, often for very long periods of time. This can seem purposeless, and yet the practice of emptying the mind can bring great insight into the many ways we struggle and strive to fill it.
Changing up some of your normal habits or environments can help reinvigorate your learning or create new learning experiences. And this doesn’t have to involve a great deal of effort. It might be as simple as leaving the office or classroom and getting outside. Or, try an experiment like doing everything left-handed for a day (assuming you are right-handed). Aside from it being incredibly awkward, you will also begin to notice just how biased the world is to right-handedness.
At a much more involved level, my life will forever be changed by the first time I really had to use a language other than English to get by on a day-to-day basis. (Rostov-on-the-Don, Russia. Summer 1993.) A switch that fundamental forces you to take notice of any number of things you otherwise take for granted.
(Even if you don’t immerse yourself in another culture, I think every serious lifelong learners should make some effort to learn another language. It can really open your eyes to how language shapes the world. Here are some tools to help.)
The Web is packed full of advice on how to declutter, streamline, and simplify your life. What most of this advice does not mention, though, is how much you can learn in the process. I chose the word “divest” for this one – as opposed to discard, or dispose, or cut, for example – because it is the opposite of invest. When you start to remove things from your life, you have to put thought into what you really are or are not invested in. You may be surprised by what you learn.
I heard Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteredge, speak once and I was struck by her comments on a scene in the book in which the main character, Olive, ends up stealing her future daughter-in-law’s bra. Strout didn’t know ahead of time that this is how the scene would play out. She got there through imagining herself as Olive and developing an understanding of what Olive would do given the circumstances.
Gifted fiction writers seem to use imagination in this way as a matter of course. So do kids up to a certain age. For the rest of us, this ability tends to weaken in adulthood or disappear altogether, but it can be a powerful tool for developing better understanding of a situation, empathizing, and problem solving.
So, those are the underappreciated learning strategies I’ve come up with so far. How much do these resonate with you, and what other “underappreciated” strategies do you find helpful? Please comment and share your thoughts!