One of my life goals is to continue to learn as much as I can about the world and how it works, about myself and my limits, and about how to make the world a more sustainable place for the generations I will leave behind someday. To be a learner requires certain dispositions or habits of mind, including but not limited to openness, caring, curiosity, questioning, deep & flexible thinking, creativity, risk-taking, listening, sharing, and finding humor. To be a learner also requires both access to and the skill to use a variety of resources and tools that enable us to gather, organize, analyze and use information.
So, how do we maintain and improve our learning dispositions? How do we access and make use of the best information? How do we keep on learning so we can live sustainably and peacefully on this great planet?
In 2011, the dawning of this second decade of the 21st century, I’m challenging myself – and you – to try some of the following ways to make 2011 a Year of Learning. Good luck and have fun!
- Breathe. Take 5 minutes every day – morning or evening or during the daily commute – to consciously focus on breathing deeply. It will calm you, help you focus on the present moment, allow you to discover your world in a new way. (Read: Three Deep Breaths by Thomas Crum)
- Do one thing at a time. In the age of multi-tasking and digital devices where we can be connected to dozens of people, networks, channels, and places at once, it is difficult to remember that our minds and bodies need to unplug and reflect. Give yourself time to focus on one task at a time – do it well, do it to completion, give it your undivided attention and deep thought. Do this for yourself. Do this for your family. Your kids will thank you later.
- Play. A lot has been written and said about the importance of play for learning and creativity. Play shouldn’t stop when we grow up just because we are adults. Some of the best ideas, decisions, and solutions come to us by playing. Give yourself permission to play. “When we come together to play and be, we are truly ourselves. When we are truly ourselves it is wonderful, and when we act collectively in that wonder we do transformative work for our community and our world.” – Brad Colby
- Get outdoors more. The world is becoming more urbanized and our lack of connection with nature is taking a toll on our health, our resources, our economies, and our climate. Get re-connected. Take a walk, take a hike, paddle a canoe, go for a sunrise trail run, sit in the park, watch the birds in your backyard, take the kids camping, use all your senses. Natural systems and rhythms can teach us a great deal about how to live our own lives. All we need to do is take the time to watch, listen, explore, and remember we are a part of this great web of life on Earth.
- Get social. Several new studies have linked social relationships with longer lives. But it’s also true that socializing helps us understand new concepts, make sense of what we read, and create imaginative solutions to problems. Online relationships can be as nurturing to our learning as face-to-face ones, too. But they all require time and positive interactions. If you want to learn something new or deepen understanding, make the effort to connect with someone and have a conversation, share an idea, read aloud with them. Want to make it really interesting? Connect with a kid. You’ll probably learn something (and prolong your life in the process).
- Volunteer. I spent one day a week for five months this past year volunteering at a local organic farm, planting seeds and helping them with their website and RSS feeds. I did it to feel useful and to help the farm. I had no idea how much I would learn about farming, about relationships, about building community, about speaking Spanish! I feel like I got so much more than I gave – and it opened a whole new world and way of learning for me.
- Read. You want to know what other people think? Read. Whether you prefer an old-fashioned paperback book, your iPad or computer screen, or a fancy new e-reader, make the time to read about topics of interest to you. Then challenge yourself to read books and articles with opinions different from your own. There’s nothing more eye-opening than finding out that other people may see the world differently than you do.
- Listen. I mean really listen. Stop. Look someone in the eye. Turn your body toward them. Clear your mind of your opinion. And listen to what they have to say. See the world from their perspective for a moment. Acknowledge it. Accept it. Understand it. Consider it a gift. It may change you. It may not. But now you know more and are better for it. Want to hear some great speeches from a variety of perspectives? Try TEDTalks.
- Create and share. I never learn more than when I am creating something – whether it is writing an article, baking bread, knitting a scarf, taking a photograph, making a video, designing a website, or planning a workshop, lesson, or field experience. The act of creating something always poses challenges and provides opportunities to learn. Sharing what we create gives us a chance to deepen our understanding enough to be able to explain what we know with confidence. When my shy little boy was in the first grade, he and a classmate were asked to create a presentation on sperm whales. I was so impressed with the level of understanding and confidence shown by these 6 year-olds, who rose to this challenge to create and learn. Give yourself the chance to create and share something this year.
- Do Something You’ve Never Done Before. Step outside your comfort zone. Travel to a new state or country. Teach a new subject. Take a new job. Change your wardrobe. Do with less stuff. Climb a mountain. Write a poem. Tell your secret love how you feel. Draw a picture. I was 42 years old when I first started taking martial arts classes. I was not very athletic. I had never experienced a defensive art. I didn’t like doing things in groups. But I made myself go. I earned my black belt. It changed my life. I wonder what new thing I’ll do this year? This decade?
A Year of Learning means a Year of Living. Do it well. Have fun. Give one or more of these a try and let me know how it goes. And if you do none of these, at least try this – every day ask someone this question: “How can I help you today?”