Try to learn something about everything
And everything about something (Thomas Huxley)
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.
Some of the Ways We Learn:
• From positive experiences
• From our mistakes
• From personal study
• By taking action
• From others, for:
“When I am with others, they are my teachers. I can select their good points and follow them, and select their bad points and avoid them.” (Confucius) But until we learn to respect others, we’ll be unable to learn from them.
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 limited 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.”
• Learn to ask questions. Rudyard Kipling explains why, “I had six honest serving men. They taught me all I knew. Their names were Where, What, When, Why, How, and Who.”
• 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 nothing 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.
• 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 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 bad habits. Your bad habits are your friends. They are pointing out ways you can improve yourself. Instead of running from them, embrace them, for they are your road map to a brighter tomorrow. Use these bad habits 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 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.”
• Learn how variety is the spice of life. Although it is necessary to focus on a subject to master it, enthusiasm may ebb if we devote too much time to 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.
• Learn 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 common sense. 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.”
• Learn to say Yes and No. You won’t get very far in life until you learn how to say Yes and No. In fact, this is important enough to go into the subject in detail, which I will now do.
Learn how to say Yes and No
“Yes” and “No.” Two short words. Short but significant. They are like a railway switch that determines which way one goes. One student tells a companion, “Let’s steal that old lady’s purse!” If the companion says, “Yes,” he may be headed for a life of crime. If he says, “No,” he may be on the path to sound judgement, good decisions, and a bright future.
That’s the way it’s always been, so it’s not surprising that more than 2,500 years ago Pythagoras said, “The oldest, shortest words — “Yes” and “No” — are those which require the most thought.” And this theme has often been repeated. For example, in the seventeenth century, the Spanish philosopher and writer Baltasar Gracian wrote, “‘Yes’ and ‘No’ are soon said, but give much to think over.”
Interestingly, unless we have the power to say “No”, we’ll never have the power to say “Yes.” After all, unless I say “No” to all-night partying, I will be unable to say “Yes” to attending night school.
The Power of “Yes”
Every creation, every invention, every innovation came about because someone said “Yes.” The universe itself is one gigantic “Yes.” “Yes” to life; “Yes” to all that is, such is the power of “Yes.”
Far more becomes achievable when we remove the obstacle of fear, for when we become courageous, anything becomes possible. A dramatic example is the changes sweeping across various pockets of the world as the population shout “Yes” to freedom and “No” to dictatorship and oppression.
Although Heather was 55, she had never been married. She worked in a laboratory and had little contact with people, and immediately after work she would head straight home to look after her invalid mother. The university she worked for had a budget crisis and had to let go of some of their high paid staff. Heather was one of them.
I was the manager of a department in a retail store at the time and advertised for some help. After losing her job, Heather lost no time looking for work and came to see me. I loved her because she was bright, trustworthy, and kind-hearted, but I didn’t expect her to take the job because all I could pay her was minimum wages. Yet, Heather said, “Yes.” Little did she realize what she was saying “Yes” to.
Unlike a laboratory, she was now working in a busy environment, meeting more people in a week than she used to in a year. One of the customers she met was Satoshi, a Japanese widower, who was as kind and generous as she was. He took a liking to her and asked her out to dinner. Heather explained that she didn’t want to leave her invalid mom at home unattended. “No problem,” said Satoshi, “instead of wasting time traveling by bus, I’ll drive you home; we’ll pick up your mom, and then drive to a restaurant where we will all dine together.”
Love blossomed. When Satoshi proposed, Heather said she couldn’t move away from her mom. “No problem,” replied Satoshi, “I just bought the condo next door to mine for your mother. Now we will be neighbors and you can spend as much time with her as you would like.”
Long ago, Heather had given up hope of falling in love, getting married, and living a luxurious life. But her life was magically transformed because she said “Yes” to the low paying job I offered her. She is not the only one who succeeded by willing to do more for less. For instance, Peter Aceto, President and CEO, of Tangerine, had this to say, “I’ve put a lot of time in personal development, taking jobs I didn’t necessarily enjoy or want to do or positions where I was going to earn less money so that I could get a better sense of how they worked. They’ve been some of the toughest personal decisions I’ve ever made, but also probably the most rewarding.”
Heather and Peter Aceto said “Yes.” Will you? What will you discover, become, and have when you say “Yes” more often?
The Power of “No”
To lead fulfilling and happy lives, we also need to learn how to say “Yes” to saying, “No.” After all, saying “No” to one thing allows us to say “Yes” to another. Here are some examples. Saying “No” to apple pie is saying “Yes” to a healthy diet. Saying “Yes” to exercise is saying “No” to poor health. Saying “No” to smoking is saying “Yes” to good health. And John C. Maxwell makes a good point, “Learn to say ‘No’ to the good so you can say ‘Yes’ to the best.”
Success in business and life requires the ability to focus. And as Steve Jobs said, “Focusing is about saying no.” After all, we have to say “No” to procrastination, poor habits, and self-sabotage.
Some people try to take advantage of us by making us feel guilty if we don’t agree to their request. So, we need to defend our rights by saying, “No.” Remember, saying “No” to manipulators is saying “Yes” to you. Besides, when you say “Yes” to things you don’t enjoy, you’re saying “No” to things you love. Also. the ability to say “No” is almost a prerequisite of leadership, for as Tony Blair said, “The art of leadership is saying no, not saying yes. It is very easy to say yes.”
How to Say “No”
Because of our conditioning, we often find it difficult to turn people down, even when their requests are unreasonable and detrimental. Here are a few steps you can take to make saying “No” easier.
1. First decide what you want to say “Yes” to. If, for instance, you say “Yes” to a happy family life, then it’s “No” to carousing every night with your office buddies. If it’s “Yes” to night school, then it’s “No” to overtime and late night TV. If it’s “Yes” to saving for a vacation cruise, then it’s “No” to eating out every night.
2. When someone asks you to do something you’d rather not do, you don’t have to answer right away. You can buy some time by saying, “I need to think about it (or review my commitments). I’ll get back to you.” This is helpful because if you answer too quickly, you may cave in to the pressure. But by taking your time, you’ll have a cooling off period and the opportunity to build your courage.
3. It’s easier to refuse when the first word out of your mouth is “No.” For example, “No. Sorry, Bob, I can’t help you at this time.”
4. It’s easier to agree when it is on your terms. For instance, Will says, “Harry can you help me move on Saturday? We can make a day of it, and I’ll treat you to dinner.” And Harry replies, “Sure, I can help you in the morning, but I have to quit at 12 noon sharp because I have an afternoon commitment.”
5. It’s easier when you are honest, for when you’re telling the truth you have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Just tell it like it is:
“Sorry, I don’t enjoy that kind of job.”
“Sorry, that doesn’t work for me.”
“Sorry, I’m not at ease with that.”
“Sorry, I’m too busy at this time.”
“Sorry, I need to pay more attention to my personal life.”
6. Make it easier for the person you’re refusing to understand you’re serious. Do this by making your body language and tonality match your verbal message. That is, stand straight, speak confidently, and make eye contact while saying a gentle but firm “No.”
• 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 are no nasty people. True, people do nasty things, but it’s not because they’re nasty; rather, it is because they are troubled, misguided, or don’t know any better.
• 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 allow the eleventh century Persian mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, and poet, Omar Khayam to pass on some advice:
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.
- Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning By Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel
- How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens By Benedict Carey
- Learning: How To Become a Genius And Expert In Any Subject With Accelerated Learning By Harvey Segler
- The Practicing Mind: Developing Focus and Discipline in Your Life — Master Any Skill or Challenge by Learning to Love the Process by Thomas M. Sterner
- Learning: The Owner’s Manual (Owner’s Manual for the Brain) by Pierce Howard
- The New Science of Learning: How to Learn in Harmony With Your Brain By Terry Doyle and Todd Zakrajsek
- Super Reading Secrets by Howard Stephen Berg