Continuous Learning

Continuous Learning
January 16, 2017 by Orr Fellowship

One of the most life-changing aspects of transitioning from college to the “real world” is the change in schedule. In college, my peers were busy. Busy with classes, sports, fraternities, sororities, social organizations, civic engagement, student government—you name it. As a result, our schedules varied like crazy. Any one of us could have had class until 4:00, intramural basketball at 5:00, and a Dance Marathon meeting at 7:00. And that was a light day.

Now, my peers have work. Work from 8am to 5pm Monday through Friday and weekends free to relax. It’s great in some ways (no homework on Sunday?!), but in others it is overwhelming. A block of free time that big was hard to come by as a busy college student. It can be tempting to grab takeout on the way home and veg on the couch until it’s time to go to bed and do it again the next day.

Unsure of what to do with that time, I started searching to see what successful people do in those same hours. Does it make a difference how you spend those hours, as long as you’re working hard at your job from 8-5? I think it does. As I looked into the suggestions and practices of some very smart people, I learned a couple of things. First, work hardly ever means just 8-5 for them. Warren Buffett often works over 100 hours a week, for example. But what else did they have in common? Continuous learning.

Coming from college, where hobbies are everywhere, it becomes harder for some to pursue them post-graduation. But it is a habit of these successful people, no matter how busy they are, to cultivate their own hobbies. Warren Buffett plays the ukulele and writes his own songs. He and Bill Gates both play Bridge. Tom Hanks collects vintage typewriters. Meryl Streep knits. Elon Musk’s companies were built on his interests and hobbies (he didn’t originally intend to go for space exploration, solar energy, and electric cars all at once, oddly enough).

Those people have time to build empires and shape their industries, without a doubt putting in the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary to master any field. Even these famously successful people have things they do for fun outside of work. And the things they are doing are not eating fast food and binge-watching Stranger Things every evening (although I am not opposed to some of that either). They are learning. Learning a complicated game, mastering an instrument, collecting, curating, creating. Learning does not have to mean studying and classwork. New skills can teach us patience and creativity. They can make us feel productive, and cultivate interests that help us connect with new people.  

Perhaps it is obvious, but the method of continuous learning that stuck out the most in my research was reading. Warren Buffett was once asked how to get smarter, to which he held up a stack of papers and replied, “read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge builds up, like compound interest.” To this day, most of what Elon Musk knows he has learned from reading. Mark Cuban reads for more than two hours each day. Mark Zuckerberg’s resolution for 2015 was to read a book every two weeks.

Not everyone loves reading, and it is difficult to sit down with a book when much flashier forms of entertainment are all around us. But we live in a world where information is so attainable, it doesn’t have to be something you hate to read. Find a blog, a good news source, a comic book, a novel. Reading one article a day, a few pages of a book, or even listening to a podcast can help keep us fresh and learning something new all the time.

I have read that what you do in working hours defines your career, and what you do after work makes you who you are. I’m not sure I believe it’s that cut-and-dried, but I do believe that both are important and neither block of time should be squandered. Graduating from college might be when we stop going to school, but it is far from when we should stop learning.

In the pursuit of learning new things, there are a few places I always come back to. Tim Urban of the blog “Wait But Why” gets to the bottom of quite complicated subjects and makes them easier to understand. Here is his article on Elon Musk: The World’s Raddest Man. It is the first in a long four-part series that is more than worth the time it takes to read it.

If you’re not as much of a reader but still want to expand your knowledge, try SmarterEveryDay by Destin Sandlin, a YouTuber who “explore[s] the world using science.” My personal favorite is The Backward Bicycle.

If you want to listen to experts talk about things that most people only consider at a distance, here is a link to the Top 10 TED Talks of 2016. TED Talks are not only a good way to learn things, but also serve as good practice for playing devil’s advocate. There are two sides to every story, and the TED speakers are so persuasively convincing, they can make it difficult (but still important) to question their opinions.

So as easy as it is to sit on the couch and find a new Netflix obsession each evening after work, I want to be more intentional with how I spend that time. This year, I want to continuously learn. Neil deGrasse Tyson said it well: “For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

By Sarah Burtenshaw


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