The Joys of Lifelong LearningAug 22, 2022
Somehow it's already back-to-school time here in the U.S. With the promise of sweater weather right around the corner, this time of year conjures images of school supplies, desks, backpacks, and eager (and not-so-eager) little faces returning to school to learn and grow. And it has me thinking about the importance of learning, not just for kids, but throughout life.
I believe that humans have an inherent need to learn, a drive toward and delight in gaining new knowledge and skills. Sometimes, though, that innate spark gets squelched, either by negative experiences in the formal education system, by life getting too busy, by sleep deprivation or stress or burnout, or just by falling out of practice. Any of these factors (and more) can diminish our quest for learning, and that's too bad. I truly believe that ongoing, lifelong learning is important for a good life.
The Benefits of Lifelong Learning
I remember a number of years ago when I got stuck in a rut. Post-graduate school, I spent several years diving deep into the world of anxiety disorders. I read countless books and research studies, attended conferences and trainings with big names in my field, and I developed a strong expertise in this area. And then I got complacent.
I enjoyed feeling confident in my knowledge and abilities. I liked the sense of knowing what I was doing. And I started to coast. While not constantly striving and struggling to stretch my understanding or master my psychology skill set was a nice reprieve, I let it go on too long. I got caught up in the daily grind of my job and life stuff outside of it, and I stopped actively feeding my need to learn. It took me a bit, but I finally realized that I was getting bored. I was stagnating, and, surprisingly, that made things feel less fulfilling than they once had. It wasn't until I started intentionally learning again that I realized just how much I missed that.
For me, rekindling my learning spark meant starting to read non-fiction books that weren't related to anxiety or psychology. Non-fiction wasn't my jam (at least not until then), but, for some reason, I picked up a book about microbes of all things...and was fascinated! Do you have any idea how many species have symbiotic relationships with microorganisms and how they wouldn't develop or function without them? (You can judge me now. I get it.) It wasn't the subject matter so much that got me jazzed - I am definitely not passionate about bacteria and viruses at all. I think it was just introducing something novel to my brain. It's like it reignited the spark, got the juices flowing, and got me out of the rut of thinking about the same old things every darn day. Whatever it was, it worked for me. I've explored other subjects that I'd previously not really been into (like physics and biographies of world leaders), and I've found a renewed insatiable thirst for psychology-related topics, which is good given my day job. Not all of the books I pick up capture my attention, and some go unfinished. Yet, I still find value in learning simply for its own sake.
There's a quote, often attributed to Lou Holtz, that says "You're either growing or dying." And I think that's true. Learning is a growing process. It expands our understanding of the world, introduces new thoughts into our minds (did you know that the overwhelming majority of thoughts you have are repeats? They're like reruns in our head. And as much as I appreciate rewatching old episodes of New Girl or Friends, at some point, it just gets dull!), and becomes inspiration for new conversations, hobbies, or pursuits.
There are neurological benefits on ongoing intentional learning as well. Our brains tend to have a "use it or lose" approach to neural pathways. While our brains continue to produce new cells throughout our lives, many of those cells do not survive very long. A growing body of research suggests that effortful learning helps those baby neurons survive and connect with other brain circuits. The implications are that learning is an important part of a brain healthy lifestyle.
I would also argue that learning can be an important part of self-care. If you've been part of the Peak Mind community for a while, then you know self-care is one of the soapboxes we like to hop on. Effective self-care isn't just about treating yourself to whatever pampering or indulgent activities you can squeeze in. It's about developing a set of intentional practices that help you show up as the version of you you want to be, in the headspace you want to be in. For me, learning is an essential part of the self-care process. It keeps me far away from that dull, lackluster, going through the motions, on the brink of burnout space that I'd prefer never to be again. Thinking of learning in that way helps me prioritize it and find creative ways to meet that need regularly.
Finally, lifelong learning helps you continually hone your skill set and knowledge base, which is going to keep you relevant and competitive in whatever arena you play in, whether that's in your career, your hobbies, your community activism, or what.
New Ways to Learn
Learning isn't just an academic pursuit. It's important to think broadly and creatively when it comes to learning. Reading is an obvious way to facilitate it, but it is, by no means, the only. We can learn through watching, doing, experimenting, playing, conversing, listening, and simply just observing with an open curious mind. I want to highlight two of these approaches in particular and issue a challenge to try them out.
1. Beginner's Mind
Think of a 5 year old with their incessant why questions, their fascination with anything and everything. Young children don't have decades of experience under their belt, which means their brains haven't put much of life on autopilot. They embody a concept known as beginner's mind.
Beginner's mind means setting aside assumptions and preconceived notions and approaching the world as though it is the first itme you are seeing or experiencing it. It's looking at the same old same old with fresh eyes and a curious mind. When we can adopt this stance, we are likely to notice something new or learn something about our worlds. Every mundane experience becomes a learning laboratory.
Speaking of laboratory, approaching life like a good scientist is another powerful way to fuel lifelong learning. We do so many things either on autopilot, because that's the way we've always done them or been taught to do them, or because of our predictions and expectations. Experimentation, on the other hand, means trying something out and seeing what happens. This can be a way to expand your comfort zone, to learn something about you or the world, or a way to ensure that your mind isn't boxing you in and limiting your life experiences.
Experimentation means putting into action "I wonder what would happen if...?"
- What would happen if I voiced my opinions? (Perhaps your mind says they'll get shot down, but will they?)
- What would happen if I skipped breakfast for a while? (Contrary to decades of "breakfast is the most important meal" programming, turns out I feel better without it.)
- What would happen if I applied for that dream job? (Maybe you'll get it, maybe not. Find out!)
Rather than making assumptions or taking predictions as givens, experimentation means testing it out, gathering data in the form of direct experiences, and seeing what you learn. Sometimes the results are surprising!
Being a lifelong learner keeps things from getting stale and helps keep your brain in good shape. Learning doesn't just mean memorizing facts or digesting subject matter. We can learn about our bodies by observing our direct experience (hello, mindfulness). We can learn about other people, even those we've known for eons, if we're willing to ask curious questions and step outside of assumptions. We can learn through experimentation. However you do it, just make sure learning is a part of life!
Learn Some New Psych Strength Skills
In keeping with this week's theme of learning, psychological strength is something that can be learned and developed. Add to your repertoire of skills with these free exercises. These are also really great tools for the hectic back-to-school scene, especially if you're prone to feeling stressed or tense, overwhelmed or worried, or tend to be hard on yourself. These are some of our quick favorites (5 minutes or less), and they're our gift to you. Use them often and share them widely!
"Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young."
Written by Dr. Ashley Smith
Peak Mind Co-founder
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