How to Learn

Questions you cannot answer are usually far better for you than answers you cannot question.
— Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century
Image source: Pexels

Image source: Pexels

Many years ago, when I was still a small and impressionable boy, someone whom I had every reason to take at their word told me that they were, according to an indisputable reading of their astrological chart, in the midst of their last karmic lifetime. That is to say, they had repaid all of their karmic debt, some of it dragged from one previous lifetime to the next (and the one after that). They were evolved, enlightened; there were no more life lessons left for them to learn.

Although I had never before heard of karma or reincarnation I was nevertheless pretty fucking impressed.

The world, even back then, in the 1970s, was vast and confusing and often terrifying to me. There was so much I struggled to make sense of, including the contradictory world of adults, how they could be so mean and then so kind, and how I never knew which version of them I was going to get. I also didn't understand why someone that lived halfway across the world would want to drop bombs on my fifth grade class (did he know us?), or how someone could kill an elephant or a tiger for and somehow call that a sport.

It's a comforting illusion to believe that there's a short-cut to the answers to all the questions that we could ever think to ask, to the things that confuse and perplex us. That's what gives dogmas and rigidly fixed ideologies their power: providing simple explanations for complex things.

That's why, for thousands of years, humans believed that the Earth sat in the center of the universe and that all the celestial bodies in the solar system revolved around it. The most learned scientists and mathematicians spent their lifetimes developing convoluted theories and formulas to justify this dogma lest they be burned alive for heresy by the Catholic Church.

But these theories and formulas could never convincingly explain certain observable peculiarities, like the retrograde motion of the planets. Yet they endured for centuries until one man, Nicolaus Copernicus, dared to challenge this orthodoxy by proving, definitively, that the Earth, like all the other planets, revolved around the Sun.

It's of course all too easy to stifle our curiosity and truncate our learning to simplify our lives, or to only see those things which confirm our view of the world. This simplification, however, while providing comfort, comes at a price.

We are all born learners. Soon after birth we quickly suss out what we have to do to get our needs met, who is friend and who is foe, and what is pleasurable and what we will henceforth do our best to avoid. We learn about the world around us, intuitively and experientially, long before our rational minds are fully operational.

This capacity for learning, made possible by our large and adaptable brains, was arguably more important 10,000 years ago, when it was critical to our daily survival, then it is now. Our survival is now no longer dependent on knowing how not to become a meal for a more powerful and cunning predator or which forest plants are safe to eat or what time of year is the best to plant crops so we don't starve the following winter.

At some point during our development and acculturation many of us come to view learning as transactional, in service to a particular purpose or vocation -- carpenter or engineer; airplane pilot or neuroscientist -- and inevitably come to devalue other forms of learning which don't directly contribute to that purpose.

So we put down the paint brush or the flute. We stop making up stories, or reading them. We stash the magic set in the back of the closet, or give the microscope to our kid sister or the neighbor down the street.

Do you remember doing any of this? Do you remember how it broke your heart just a little bit?

Do you remember a time when learning felt easy and came naturally, when it didn't feel like work? When time flew by, or didn't seem to exist at all?

When was the last time you were excited about learning something new, not because you could monetize it or because it might lead to career advancement or some other kind of recognition but simply for the pure joy of learning?

How to play your favorite song on guitar.

How to drive a stick shift.

How to walk a slack line.

How to juggle with a chainsaw.

This is not a "how to" manual, however. You won't learn any of those skills (some of them of dubious long-term value) here.

I'm not going to promote the value of 10,000 hours of practice or pitch you the relative merits of different learning methodologies; nor will I coach you through how to find the subject or subjects you're most interested in learning or provide you with the blueprint for gathering the data and information that will hopefully, with enough hard work, some day lead to mastery.

This is about developing the mental habits of a lifelong learner:

  • Don't be afraid to ask "why?" again and again

  • Get comfortable with saying "I don't know," quickly followed by "but I'd like to find out"

  • Be willing to be wrong; growth comes from learning from our mistakes

  • Embrace and strengthen other forms of intelligence instead of focusing on one (the one that comes most naturally) at the expense of the others

  • Cultivate a childlike wonder and curiosity, a so-called beginner's mindset

  • Be skeptical of dogmatic or ideological thinking, in yourself and in others

  • Follow your interests, wherever they lead; let your interests run wild!

  • Get to know the nature of your mind; learn to observe your choices and decisions like a dispassionate observer to uncover your unconscious biases

None of this will be possible, of course, if deep down you believe there's nothing left to learn, or that you already know everything that's important to know, or that the answers to all your questions have already been answered and you just need to know in which book to look for them (the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah). None of this will have any impact whatsoever if you believe that your abilities are fixed and that growth is therefore not possible.

After I was diagnosed with prostate cancer I could have very easily heeded the recommendation of my first two urologists, who between them had performed thousands of radical prostatectomies. I could have deferred to their expertise and knowledge -- their authority -- and put my health in their hands, unquestioningly.

Instead, I educated myself. I learned that there were other treatment options for my disease, options that these surgeons didn't tell me about; I learned that the disease could return, even after surgery to remove my prostate; and I learned that lifestyle interventions like diet, exercise and stress management were very effective in managing the disease (and many others) if it was caught early enough.

But most importantly I learned that learning is  an attitude, and that this attitude itself can be learned.