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Turning Lifelong Learning Into a Habit

Vincent Arena
Aug 9, 2021

According to vigorous social-scientific research (actually, a 2018 New Years Resolution Poll), the top aspirations of Americans surveyed were to go the gym more often, eat healthier, and save more money. Although this came to me as no shocker, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that reading more and learning a new skill were included on 15% and 18% of peoples' lists, respectively. But does reading a book or learning to juggle or dance really stack up to putting in those hours in the gym?

It turns out that, like any other muscle in our body, our brain gets stronger as we continue to learn new skills, adopt new mindsets, and acquire new knowledge.

According to Dr Johansen-Berg, "we have demonstrated that there are changes in the white matter of the brain – the bundles of nerve fibres that connect different parts of the brain – as a result of learning an entirely new skill [1]."

If our brains were computers, white matter would be the cables that connect everything together and transmit signals. The implications: Our brains are designed to change and constantly re-wire, even into adulthood.

I'd argue that the relentless pursuit of new skills and knowledge is one of the most important habits we can possibly build in order to enhance our social lives, health, personal development, and even employability.

Formal Education Does Not Encourage Lifelong Learning

As a recent graduate working on my own startup, I've been blessed (and cursed) with extreme flexibility in how I spend my time. I think about learning as something that takes place on an ongoing basis from my daily interactions with the world. In an conventional education system, the schedule and scope of our learning has been more or less set by others for our entire lives. It's interesting to me that upon leaving this system, there is not so much as a suggested conversation, let alone a mandatory formal process, to prepare graduates for an entering an entirely new learning environment.

In this situation, our habits can be the most helpful or the most harmful thing. For those who have not aptly prepared for this switch, there is often very little free time between work and other necessities of life. Yet, it becomes too easy to fill that time with scrolling through Snapchat, watching TV, or whatever else one did to pass time in high school or college.

Have you ever seen a celebrity, friend, or family member and thought "what aren't they good at?" I'd argue that there's a way to become this person; simply, becoming good at learning. I don't proclaim to be an expert, however, I'd like to share my top personal philosophies and "tools" that have been useful for me in making lifelong learning a habit.

1 Pocket Notebook & 1 Bedside Journal

We learn so much from the people around us, yet often we let those nuggets of knowledge slip. Keep one notebook with you at all times, and carry it around with you in your pocket or bag in case you have a good idea, or to reflect on a conversation or something that you want to do or implement. My favorite notebook is the hardcover Moleskin Reporter.

The beside journal (with a writing utensil) should always be located right next to your bed so that you can reach it without getting out of bed. This is great for reflections at the end of your day, writing down dreams as soon as you wake up (more on this in a future article), and for preparing for your day by writing down the most important things you want to get done that day. At the end of my day I like to write down what things I want to accomplish tomorrow, and when I wake up review that list and set on a path to do it.

Down Time = Learning Time

While some downtime is good, too much if it means that you have an opportunity to be filling it with learning that will take you to the next level. Instead of getting frustrated while stuck in traffic in the car, waiting for your always-late coworker to show up to the meeting, riding the bus, waiting in line, or not falling asleep at night - get excited and use that time to your advantage and welcome it as an opportunity to learn. This small perspective shift could change your life.

The next step after "reframing" your down-time as is organizing your phone, your room, your car, in order to make it easy to learn. Have a queue of podcasts or audio books that you've been wanting to listen to downloaded offline and easy to access when you get into the car or on a flight. If you don't know where to start, check out my Mandatory Education playlist on Youtube which features videos I've watched that have significantly changed my perspective on life.

When You Get an Urge to do Something New, Do it While the Activation Energy is Lowest

One of the most important things that you can do is go with your impulses/intuition when it comes to pursuing passions and interests. Some of my best personal learning experiences (and most productive periods of time) have been when I have pushed aside other things in life in order to pursue a deep curiosity that seemed to arise from nowhere. This could be something as little as listening to a free neuroscience class on Youtube on your way to work, or as much as picking up an instrument that has been laying around your house.

Naturally, children are curious. The human brain develops more than at any other time in life from birth to age 5, partially because of this incessant curiosity. Maybe we should learn from our former-selves and instead of trying to force ourselves to do more, we should try to cultivate the emotion of curiosity - this way, the learning will come naturally.

Below is a video that I "accidentally" made after the University Innovation Fellows conference due to following the method stated above. I never had experience in "videography" or video editing, but I was so inspired by the event I decided to throw a couple of videos together and see what I could make. I googled "royalty free music" and found a really inspirational song to use for the background. Hearing the music with one clip, I decided it would be cool to put one or two words in the video as the music "rose". I was planning on putting just the words"we learned", and then I realized that the way the music was going, it made sense to add a word rhythmically at every switch of scenes. Before I knew it, I created a fully edited video without even trying. Some define this as flow. Whatever it is, I think the best way to fall into this mode more often is when you follow the internal forces pushing you and do the things that you really have an itch to do...

"the higher the excitement = the lower the activation energy"

Vincent Arena
Vincent Arena is a designer, entrepreneur and engineer.

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