Lifelong Learning

“Why do they persist, the old masters? To what end the unceasing effort to discover or create something new? Why not rest on the laurels and the oars? … The tree of knowledge and the fountain of youth are one and the same.”

Lewis H. Lapham

After graduation from college, I had four big realizations.

The first was that leaving college meant that I was leaving a rich, supportive environment and that it would no longer be easily accessible. I was leaving the warm interest of professors and a close-knit community of peers, the beauty of the college campus, the atmosphere of scholarly words in the air, and the daily chance for random coincidences that would lead to new ideas and understanding. It’s safe to say that I missed it immediately.

The second realization was that a lot of people had put a lot of work into creating that environment that I enjoyed for four years, and I had invested heavily in the opportunity to be there with tuition. This led to gratitude and the understanding that that kind of environment is the result of real effort and investment.

My painting teacher, John Gordon, is an old master—a lifelong learner. It feels strange to call him an old master because he is certainly a master, but he doesn’t fit the description of “old.” His energy is neither old nor young, but simply strong, sharp, and clear. A conversation with him is a brisk jog. He’s always asking me what I’m reading and what I’ve been thinking about. When I think of people I know who embody the idea of lifelong learning, he is one of them.

Self portrait. John Gordon. Oil on canvas. Self portrait. John Gordon. Oil on canvas.

The third realization was that the best thing college taught me wasn’t anything about a specific topic or field, but rather the learning habit. I had learned how to learn, how to enjoy learning, and how to do it often. I was done with college but the last thing I wanted was to be done learning. After graduation, without the support of teachers or the requirements of a class, I still found myself wanting to explore new ideas. The goal of college is to develop expertise in a chosen field, but it’s also to guide the student toward being an independent lifelong learner.

After realizing that continuing to learn was important to me and that it was possible to create a rich learning environment through effort and investment, I realized that I could do the same thing for myself. I might not have access to exactly the same resources in the same way that a college provides them, but I could do it in my own way, and that was an exciting idea. It was now up to me to create an inspiring, interesting environment in my home and relationships to encourage the same things that I loved about college. It was up to me what to include or remove from my environment based on the choices I made. This led to an emotion I don’t have a word for. Maybe it’s the feeling of adulthood—a feeling of hopeful responsibility mixed with the feeling that you don’t quite know what you’re doing.

At the age of 87 my grandfather made the switch from a Windows laptop to a Macbook Air and iPad. He likes to take photos of the flowers in the garden outside his home and post them on Facebook. When someone asked him what camera he’s using to take his photos my grandpa said, “My iPad Mini. Goes directly through the cloud to my MacBook Air to easily put on Facebook.” I can only hope that I’m as open to new ideas as he is at the same age.

John Matthew Flowers

There’s a widely held but subtle belief that learning is something that’s done during a certain period of your life and that the rest of your life is meant for applying that learning to your work. Of course most people learn new things related to their jobs all the time, but other learning that isn’t specifically job-related is often seen as a waste of time or unnecessary.

These are subtle beliefs that can change how we think about learning and approach it throughout our lives. This perspective can lead to an education that stops at a certain age when the truth is that education is something that should continue no matter what age you are. There is a great danger that we will lose the gift of the learning muscle if we don’t create an environment that encourages us to exercise it at every age. Learning is not something you’re only able to do when you have permission to do it. It’s an essential part of a long, healthy, creative life.

I know two more masters of lifelong learning. My mom, a biologist turned minister turned artist and teacher. My dad, a software developer who picked up the flute as a midlife calling.

All of these people have been direct examples of the benefits of lifelong learning to me, and I’m sure that you can think of examples from your own experience.

Now I faced a challenge. If I wanted to learn independently and craft a supportive educational environment that would keep me learning as often as possible, how exactly would that be done? It’s up to us to build our libraries, invite our friends for discussions, and seek new influences. It’s up to us to create an environment where learning is natural. But without direct guidance or support, what strategies are there for doing that on a practical level?

Here are a few things I’ve tried. Some of them are simple, some of them are a little odd, but I’m experimenting and this has been working pretty well. Because this kind of education is self-crafted and individual, it’s up to you to determine what works for you, but I hope some of these ideas might be helpful.

  1. Watching lectures online—Pretty much every college or university in the world has some sort of online lecture series. Watching these is good because it simulates the experience of sitting in a classroom and being introduced to unexpected ideas. I particularly like the UCL Lunch Hour Lectures and other similar series that have lectures from a variety of different fields as well as organized playlists focused on specific fields.
  2. Going to conferences—If you look around, you’re likely to find conferences in your area where people gather together to share and discuss ideas. Conferences like BarCamp are particularly beneficial because they are participant-led and organized. You can get a taste of a huge variety of topics and easily share your own interests if you want to.
  3. Going to museums–There’s nothing like a museum to put you in a reflective mood where new insights can happen.
  4. Reading (and other media)–Reading books is one of the best ways to explore new ideas. But I also include movies, videos, podcasts, music, articles, video games, art, and even new kinds of food (well, mainly tea) in my reading list.
  5. Writing—I think this is one of the most important tools for self-education. Reading is great, but writing is equally important because it gives you a chance to review, reflect, and refine your understanding. It also helps you formulate your own perspective and make connections between different ideas that may not be discovered if you’re not given the chance to talk it out.
  6. Organizing learning into “courses”—Learning can often feel like an overwhelming, ever-expanding web of connected ideas and thoughts and it can get confusing and frustrating to try to keep everything clear and organized. You are learning something for the first time, after all. To keep things organized, I like to look for patterns in what I’m reading and what I’m thinking about and give them crazy fake “course” names like Nausicaa and Korra: Themes in Anime and Manga from Homer to Kasamatsu to Miyazaki. Here’s a list of my “courses” and their readings lists from this year so far as an example. Giving these patterns and themes a name helps me keep the connections organized and makes it easier to look for more things on similar topics so that I can keep exploring in an interesting direction once I’ve found one. The process tends to go like this: I read, watch lectures, go to museums, etc., but as I do so I make a note of any interesting common themes or threads that connect the different things I’m exploring. Once something becomes clear, I’ll give it a “course” name and keep track of the things I’m reading that are related to it. I also sometimes have a “final project” to go with a course.

In the end though, the real guiding principle is to stay curious and spend time with the things you care about most. If you do that, you’ll have no choice but to keep learning, exploring, creating, and discovering, and you’ll find your own way to do it.

“Curiosity is insubordination in its purest form.”

–Vladimir Nabokov

About Kevin McGillivray

Kevin McGillivray is a web developer, writer, and teacher from Wisconsin. He writes about creativity, mindfulness, code, and tea.

Subscribe to the newsletter: