Commit yourself to lifelong learning. The most valuable asset you’ll ever have is your mind and what you put into it. –Brian Tracy
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 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.
Why bother learning? Because the more we understand life, the more we will appreciate it and be in awe of it. Without knowledge and understanding we would be like a stone, existing but not living. Learning adds excitement and meaning to life. And since life is synonymous with change, we have to keep learning, merely to keep up. Learning, also, makes us fit company for ourselves as well as for others.
“Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” said Henry Ford. Interestingly, medical research confirms his belief. Those who keep their minds active by studying poetry and music, for example, or by learning foreign languages and gaining computer skills seem to ward off Alzheimer’s disease. The brain, then, like the rest of our body, needs regular workouts to remain in good shape. It’s the old rule of “use it or lose it.”
Some of the Ways We Can Learn:
Learn from experience. Reading and studying is not learning, applying what you have studied is. We learn by doing. Experience is the greatest teacher. Of what value is knowledge, if it is unapplied? To truly benefit, we need to learn, digest, and apply knowledge.
Learn from your problems. Every problem is a solution waiting to be discovered or an opportunity for growth waiting to unfold. Cathy Lee Crosby, who has had her share of ‘ups and downs,’ had this to say, “It seems that we learn lessons when we least expect them but always when we need them the most, and, the true ‘gift’ in these lessons always lies in the learning process itself.”
Learn from your mistakes. On the one hand, more can be learned from what works than from what fails, but on the other hand more can be learned from our mistakes than from theory. This is why Igor Stravinsky said, “I have learned throughout my life as a composer chiefly through my mistakes and pursuits of false assumptions, not by my exposure to founts of wisdom and knowledge.” After a mistake or failure, don’t deny it or make excuses, but learn from it. Also learn from the mistakes of others, you can save yourself a lot of grief that way.
Learn by asking questions. Rudyard Kipling explains how he became a learned man, “I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were: Where, What, When, Why, How and Who.” Cultivate curiosity and discover a world of endless wonder and ceaseless opportunities for learning.
Learn from others. Think of all you can learn by associating with smarter people! Smarter or not, we can learn from everyone, for they all know something we don’t. Copy everything you like and avoid everything you dislike about others. Everyone we meet, then, is our teacher.
Learn by teaching. The best way to learn is to teach. And that’s exactly what I’m doing now by writing this article. When teaching, not only do we learn about the subject we teach, but we also learn how to organize our thoughts, do research, and develop our writing and or speaking skills.
Learn from your faults. Your shortcomings are your friends. They are pointing out ways you can improve yourself. Instead of running from your weaknesses, embrace them, for they are your road map to a brighter tomorrow. Use these faults as a reason to develop self-discipline, determination, and responsibility, so you can create a better you.
Learn from criticism. Don’t fret over criticism. If it’s invalid, ignore it. If it’s unfair, forgive them. If it’s based on envy, be compassionate. But if it is a legitimate gripe, learn from it! And if you want to learn how to be a decent person, resist all temptation to offer ‘constructive criticism’ to others. Criticism is almost always destructive, but when it’s hurled your way, forgive those who do so, and learn from it if you can.
Learn how to change your mind. Critics jump on leaders that change their minds because they are not resolute. But whenever we change our mind, isn’t that declaring that we know more today than we did yesterday? Isn’t that good? To grow, we have to learn how to give up some of our previously held ideas or beliefs. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “The years teach us much the days never knew.”
Variety is the spice of life. Although it is necessary to focus on a subject to master it, enthusiasm is bound to ebb if we devote too much time on a single subject. From time to time, shift to a new one, it will not only broaden your view, but each new subject will infuse a fresh dose of enthusiasm into your study.
Seek the truth. How can you discover the truth unless you open the windows of your mind by being broad-minded? When you come across new knowledge, weigh the facts, study the pros and cons, be skeptical, use analytical thinking and rely on commonsense. For as Bertolt Brecht, the German physician, poet, and playwright, wrote, “Never believe on faith, see for yourself! What you yourself don’t learn you don’t know.”
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 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 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 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 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.”
• 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 worlds apart, or as Luciano Pavarotti said, “Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail.”
• There’s very little 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, “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 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.
• 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, “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 possess 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)
• 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)
• 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 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.
I’ll conclude this section by sharing some quotes from different times and places.
“The man who graduates today and stops learning tomorrow is uneducated the day after.” (Newton D. Baker)
“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” (Thomas H. Huxley)
“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.”
My final quotation is believed to come from the teachings of the eleventh century Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet, Omar Khayyam:
He who knows not, and knows not that he knows not, is a fool, shun him.
He who knows not, and knows that he knows not, is a child, teach him.
He who knows, and knows not that he knows, is asleep, wake him.
He who knows, and knows that he knows, is wise, follow him.
Reading: A Major Gateway to Learning
Although we are part of the animal kingdom, we occupy a unique position in life. For we are not only creations, but creators. And we are wonderful creators. That is, we have created wonders such as the great Pyramid of Giza, the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China, Greece’s Acropolis, Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Angkor Wat Buddhist temples in Cambodia, the temples and Pagodas of Bagan, Myanmar; Hagia Sophia (“Church of the Holy Wisdom”) in Istanbul, Turkey; the world’s tallest building, Burj Khalifa in the United Arab Emirates; the elegant Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Some of these marvels are ancient and are crumbling. Eventually, all will fade away. But perhaps, the most enduring wonder, and the greatest treasure of all, is the world of books. Books are the golden key that unlocks the wisdom of the ages, sages, and mages. Or, in more down-to-earth language, “You’re the same today as you’ll be in five years except for the people you meet and the books you read.” (Charlie “Tremendous” Jones)
During our time off, there are many ways we can spend it, such as by taking a walk, playing chess, or painting, but “Of all the diversions of life, there is none so proper to fill up its empty spaces as the reading of useful and entertaining authors.” (Joseph Addison)
When one recognizes the value of books, it is easy to understand why we would be horrified by the many book burnings that were carried out throughout history. Just to give three examples, in 213 B.C. Emperor Qin Shi Huang is said to have ordered the burning of philosophy and history books; in roughly 640, the infamous destruction of the Library of Alexandria took place, and more recently, in 1992, the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina was firebombed and destroyed by Serbian nationalists. More than 1.5 million books, including 4,000 rare books, 478 bound manuscripts, and 100 years of Bosnian newspapers and journals were lost.
Yet, perhaps the greatest crime of all is to have free access to all the world’s great books and not read them, which is what is going on in the United States. Here are some of the abhorrent statistics:
1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
42 percent of college graduates never read another book after college.
70 percent of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
57 percent of new books are not read to completion.
Although the above statistics are somewhat dated, according to its annual survey of American reading habits, the National Endowment for the Arts announced that 54.3 percent of American adults read a book for pleasure in 2008, down from 56.6 percent in 2002, so the trend is unfavorable. In fact, so few people are reading books that you can become an expert merely by reading five books on the same subject. Would you like to be in the top 25% of the world’s intellectuals? If so, all you have to do is read one book a month every year. How difficult is that? Well, if you read 15 minutes a day, every day for a year, you will have completed, depending on their size, 12~20 books.
Yes, the United States does publish more than 170,000 new titles a year, but 95% of the books are purchased by only 5% of the people. Moreover, despite having a population 5X greater than the U.K., there are 20% more titles published each year in England than in the U.S. Also, new titles in the U.K. rose by 28 per cent in 2005~6, while they fell by 18 per cent in the U.S.
The Value of Books
1. Books are patient teachers, willingly sharing the wisdom of our contemporaries and forefathers. “Books are masters who instruct us without rods or ferules (sticks, canes or paddles used to punish children) without words (criticism) or anger, without bread or money. If you approach them, they are not asleep; if you seek them, they do not hide; if you blunder, they do not scold; if you are ignorant, they do not laugh at you.” (Richard De Bury).
2. Our future depends on what we read after graduating from school. Real learning starts after graduation and is found in the books we read.
3. Imagine meeting Albert Einstein, Marcus Aurelius, or Buddha. We can meet them all and countless others. Philosophers, spiritual teachers, scientists, poets, and historical figures of every ilk invite us to join them in the world of books. “Books are the true levelers. They give to all, who faithfully use them, the society, the spiritual presence, and the best and greatest of our race.” (William Ellery Channing)
4. A good book teaches us about every aspect of life, the strengths and foibles, the rise and fall of humanity. It introduces us to beauty, truth, and wisdom. Good books are manuals that guide us to the path of success and happiness.
5. Books teach us by example how to powerfully express ourselves through language.
6. Reading destroys loneliness, for when we are surrounded by books, we will always have friends to delight, comfort, guide, instruct, and inspire us.
7. Books are the gateway to the greatest adventure of all: self-discovery. “Every reader finds himself. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument that makes it possible for the reader to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have seen in himself.” (Marcel Proust)
8. Because of the knowledge books grant their readers, and because of the small number of book lovers, today’s readers will become tomorrow’s leaders.
9. When circumstances prevent you from traveling, books will whisk you off to a far-off land, to a yet undreamt of paradise, or a Shangri-La of unimaginable beauty.
10. The world of books will provide you with a sanctuary where you can escape from the chaos, confusion, and clamor of everyday life.
11. Books broaden your perspective by providing a sweeping vista of the entirety of human experience. “To read is to fly: it is to soar to a point of vantage which gives a view over wide terrains of history, human variety, ideas, shared experience and the fruits of many inquiries.” (Anthony Clifford Grayling)
12. “Reading is a means of thinking with another person’s mind; it forces you to stretch your own.” (Charles Scribner, Jr.)
13. Would that we all would appreciate books to the extent that Desiderius Erasmus did, for he wrote, “When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”
14. According to a 2009 Mayo Clinic Study of Aging, reading could decrease the risk of mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which is associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
15. Bibliotherapy is a modern form of treatment utilized to treat non-emergency mental illness. In the United Kingdom, bibliotherapy is a suggested treatment practiced by many therapists to treat patients with depression and other mood disorders. This unique therapy works by getting the patient to read prescribed self-help books that address their illness.
How to Read Books
1. My favorite piece of advice on how to read books was given by Francis Bacon: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider.”
2. “Read nothing that you do not care to remember, and remember nothing you do not mean to use.” (John Stuart Blackie)
3. “It is well to read everything of something, and something of everything.” (Henry P. Brougham)
4. Apply what you learn. Don’t expect self-help books to work if you don’t.
5. Plan your reading and read with a purpose.
Additional Words of Advice about Reading
1. Don’t neglect reading books that were written before you were born or earlier. All books, regardless of their age, are new when read for the first time.
2. “A good book, in the language of the book-sellers, is a salable one; in that of the curious, a scarce one; in that of men of sense, a useful and instructive one.” (Oswald Chambers)
3. “Books, like friends, should be few and well chosen. Like friends, too, we should return to them again and again for, like true friends, they will never fail us ─ never cease to instruct ─ never cloy.” (Charles Caleb Colton) As Charles Caleb Colton suggests, we should reread good books several times during our lifetime, An important reason for doing so is that we are no longer the same person when we reread it, so each new reading will provide fresh insights.
4. Build a personal library of your favorite books so you will be able to follow the advice of (William) Robertson Davies, “A truly great book should be read in youth, again in maturity and once more in old age, as a fine building should be seen by morning light, at noon and by moonlight.”
5. With the vast number of books available, choose what you read carefully. Why spend time poring over useless information when you could use the same time to grow in knowledge, understanding, and wisdom?
6. Potentially, books are treasures, but one that is shut is nothing but a doorstop.
7. If we fail to read good books, how are we any better than an illiterate person?
8. Sometimes one reads a book on procrastination in order to procrastinate! Don’t use reading as an excuse to avoid responsibilities.
9. “It is better to read a little and ponder a lot than to read a lot and ponder a little.” (Denis Parsons Burkitt)
10. Read one book at a time. To learn efficiently, it is better to focus on one subject at a time. If we try to read several books at once, we divide our attention, absorbing less material from each book.
11. “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” (P. J. O’Rourke) I couldn’t resist including this humorous quote, which applies to Elvis Presley. You see, despite his ignoble death (a drug overdose in his bathroom), it became noble because of what he was reading at the time of his death, which was the spiritual classic, The Impersonal Life, by Joseph S. Benner.
Just as we can judge people by the company they keep, we can learn more about them by the books they read. And whenever you meet bright people and wish to become more like them, find out what books they read.
You probably agree with Marcus Tullius Cicero that “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” To enjoy the benefits of reading at little cost, get a library card. And if you already have one, use it more often.
Also, may we all enjoy TV as much as Groucho Marx who said, “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by Josh Waitzkin
How to Improve the Quality of Your Life?: A Comprehensive Approach and Guide to Well-Being By Dr. Joseph Adrien Emmanuel DEMES M.D. M.P.H. Ph.D.
The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony with Your Brain By Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek
Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice by Sharan B. Merriam and Laura L. Bierema
how to improve learning skills – how to learn effectively
Barbara Oakley: Learning how to learn