I am now at a point in my life where it is entirely possible for me to wake up, go to work, do work related things, come home, and then proceed to do nothing at all, only to repeat the process forever. When I get home from work I’m tired and if I’m not careful may find myself wasting time watching nonsense Youtube videos until I look at the clock and notice it’s time to go to sleep again. This cycle could be potentially repeated ad nauseam, creating a downward spiral of exhaustion towards settling.
When we attend school, starting at a young age, we are thrown into a world where we are forced to learn many different things spanning many different subjects. As we grow older much of the same occurs. If we attend college many programs will involve classes unrelated to your major that you must pass in order to graduate. We train our younger civilians in a way in which they can (hopefully) be fully functioning members of society.
Over time, eventually, we all begin to start succumbing to the specialization bug. Society’s division of labors has made it a necessity to specialize in one thing in order to be competitive in the market. If you are good at multiple things, you will eventually lose out to your competitors who are great at the one thing the customer wants accomplished.
This situation is damning to the soul, especially when you throw the efficiency of computers into the mix. You click, move mouse, click, in a repeated pattern over and over again, much like a machine. The tasks do not ask more of your ability to think, only your ability to keep on clicking. Many jobs of this nature are at the mercy of the possibility an actual machine will take over to do the task of the human more efficiently.
The Danger of Comfort
The division of labor isn’t completely to blame for our sinking into specialization. When you get good at something and become comfortable with doing it, you become emotionally stable and if the job is satisfactory, financially stable as well. You get comfortable in your job and comfortable in your life beyond it. You don’t seek to learn new things or be challenged in different ways because that would disrupt the comfort you have built for yourself.
Learning something new, and I mean really attempting to learn it, is challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. We have to take a hit to the ego a little in order to improve. We have to use the words, “I don’t know” in an honest way. Most importantly, we have to practice, practice, and then practice some more, and not just go through the movement, deliberately practice. Practice with the intent of performing better and better each time. This is exhausting! It’s no wonder a lot of us have trouble doing it.
Going the Long Way Round
Endurance is not just for runners. I believe it to be the single most important attribute one must have in order to be a lifelong learner. Learning is not merely something one does once and is done with it, even though that is how many of us act. You must continually be trying to learn new things, improving on old things, and letting some outdated beliefs go.
An good long distance runner keeps a steady pace and that is important when it comes to learning as well. If you slow down too much, you will lose the progress you have worked hard for and have to make it up later. If your pace is too quick you will tucker out before the end of the race. Set up good habits which cultivate continual and steady improvements.
This year marks me having been lifting weights for 15 years. Over time I have set up the necessary habits in order to keep this endeavor up and am proud to say that I never miss a day unless something out of my control happens. While I am proud of it, I also find it difficult to set up similar habits in other endeavors. We only have a certain amount of energy and motivation in a day and we have to use it wisely. However, I do find that the days I feel most accomplished and mentally stimulated are those that I am able to balance multiple kinds of activities in a meaningful way.
Different activities feed off of each other and fuel each other as well. Something you learn in your physics class can help you understand Aristotle. Discipline you build through dieting can help you read more. All it takes is the endurance to keep going and a curiosity to explore the unknown (easy right!?).
Light the Lantern
When we are young our mind is like a lantern, bright but unfocused. As we grow older it becomes like a flashlight, focused but unable to see the surroundings, and sometimes unable to look away.
Our goal as we age is not to keep to one or the other but to know when one is needed over the other. Use our natural curiosity to scan the horizon, finding something new we might enjoy, and focus on it intensely, trying to deeply learn everything about it. Doing so will give us the ability to keep learning and to use our newfound knowledge in our daily life and mental life.
Specialization is good for the economy, but bad for the soul. Take advantage of the plasticity of your mind, your ability to keep learning into old age, and take on a new challenge. Keep the pace. Not too fast, not too slow. Whatever works for you.