Introduction to Continuous Learning – The Proper Care and Feeding of Your Brain
Remember the three pillars of a good life? Health is your foundation, wealth gives you freedom, and wisdom gives you the insight to know what really matters. We’ve talked at length about health and wealth, so it’s about time we talk about wisdom.
Wisdom is a bit hard to define, don’t you think? It’s not really one thing, but more like a combination of several characteristics. It’s the overlap of knowledge, experience, and good judgment.
Like health and wealth, wisdom is not something you pursue directly, it’s a result or byproduct of other things. For example, if you want health, you need to exercise, eat nourishing food, and get quality rest. Similarly, if you want wealth, you must find ways to provide value to others, you save (a lot) more than you earn, and you invest.
But how do you become wise? Sorry, I confess I don’t have the answer. However, just as habits and routines are critical for your health and wealth, I’m convinced that there are actions you can take to feed and exercise your brain. Then as you add ongoing experience and a bit of luck, you’ll also end up a “wise guy” (but hopefully not the mafia type).
One of the actions you can take is to keep learning. Continuous learning (“cognitive training”) is like brain exercise. There is gathering evidence that the brain can continue to make new connections throughout life (synaptogenesis). The more synapses you have, the more capacity your brain has. It’s like having more pathways to the same location. If one bridge collapses, there are redundant ways to get around.
Why does this matter? Neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s can destroy (clog) your neural pathways. While there is no known way to prevent this kind of dementia, keeping an active mind could delay its effects by giving your brain lots of ways to compensate if/when these “roads” start to deteriorate. At the very least, that’s a good reason to keep your mind active.
Follow Your Curiosity
It’s likely that when you graduated from your institution of higher learning, that was the end of any formal requirement for education. Hooray for you! There’s a reason you threw your cap in the air and burned all your course notes. It felt good to be “done.” I know where you’re coming from.
But wait, before you congratulate yourself too much here, step back and see if this kind of thinking may be holding you back. Remember that our education system is flawed in many ways, and your attitude toward learning may have been tainted from these system failures. Maybe you didn’t like “school,” but school is not the same education. I bet deep inside you, there is the kid who still likes learning and wants to know “why.”
School forced you through hoops to pass tests about subjects someone else decided you should take. This took all the fun out of it. None of it was driven by your questions.
However, think of a 4-year-old (that’s easy for me since I have one). Our four-year-old is like a sponge. He can’t stop asking questions. Everything he sees is and experiences feels new to him. He is literally “hungry” to learn about the world. We all felt that way once.
Yet, through many years of rote memorization in the school systems of today, many have lost the wonder of learning. Somewhere along the way, you learned “enough to get by.” You’d had enough of getting pushed through classic literature. You’d had enough of memorizing scientific “facts.” You’d had enough of dates and names in history. You’d had enough of others telling you what to learn.
Now consider this: It’s time to start asking your own questions. Follow your curiosity. What do you want to know more about? All it takes is to start wondering.
Here is a snapshot of what I have wondered in the last month: How do I take better photos with my smart phone? What allowed Hitler to gain so much power, and why did normal people go along with his diabolic plans? What is the math behind predicting solar eclipses? How can I control my mental state at any given moment? How do I set up my home with “smart” technology that allows me to take advantage of great music and entertainment? What will I learn if I read Crime and Punishment along with my son’s high school class?
I’ve had a great time discovering the answers to these questions (still working on finding something I can comprehend about the math behind solar eclipses). The fun part is that is is all driven by stuff I really want to know, I’m following my curiosity, and that makes all the difference.
Continuing Personal Education
To keep my license to practice medicine, I am required to get continuing medical education (CME). When I read articles or go to conferences, I get “credits” that prove that I am staying current in my field. I need to get so many credits per year to meet the requirements. While it may sometimes feel like I am jumping through hoops to get my credits, overall I agree with the idea that I need to keep learning to stay sharp in what I do. My employer even contributes a certain amount of money per year into a professional fund to cover books and courses, so I don’t have to hesitate about spending money on it.
Perhaps you are not a lawyer or a health professional with this kind of requirement, but how about instead of continuing medical education, you had a continuing personal education (CPE). What if you mapped out a curriculum of books you’ve wanted to read, history you want to know more about, skills you want to obtain? You could assign “credits” to the each hour you spend. Then you could have a goal for a certain number of credits for the year and reward yourself if you achieve it. You could even budget a certain amount of money per year as a personal growth fund. You probably spend money to keep your body healthy (gym memberships, fitness gear, food supplements) as well as to maintain your financial life (financial planners, tax accountants). Why not budget some funds for mental enrichment and personal growth?
Take some time to think about it. Are you actively feeding your mind? Or are you just letting in whatever the world wants to feed it? Your mind will just snack on junk if you let it. Email, texting, social media, Netflix binging, YouTube videos, and on and on. These are little dopamine “hits” that you start to crave. There are billions of dollars being spent to capture and hold your attention. The more you sit back and “go with the flow” the more you are going to be swept toward a short attention span and superficial effort.
Instead, take back control of your mind and what you allow to go into it. Chart a course that follows your curiosity. Challenge yourself. Go deep. It’s just in time for back-to-school.
What do you think? How do you keep your mind active? What have you wondered lately? If you made a learning curriculum for yourself, what would you put on it? Share your thoughts and ideas below.
Next post I’ll talk about some ideas about how to set up a plan you can put into action.