Keep learning, live long, live well

When I read Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one specific detail took my deepest attention. Clarke describes (no spoilers here), in his riveting way, how astronaut David Bowman’s day on the spaceship Discovery was scheduled, and specifically states that two hours of the “day” were allotted to studying.

At this point, I remember putting down the book with a longing look in my eyes as I stared into nothingness. I thought: Wow! I wished I had such luxury. At the time my son was about a year old (now he’s two), and I still worked in research. All I was able to do was scrape time to write (and occasionally read). But time to study something? Unimaginable.

I had already discovered the wonderful catalog of courses on Coursera and edX and had been greedily eyeing a few courses on topics ranging from astronomy to creative writing (yeah, my interests are diverse). But today, if one wants to study something on top of the daily grind of an average working adult, one has to carve the minutes from sleep and recreation.

I find this to be a huge shortcoming of our society. I wished that the desire to keep enriching oneself was better valued and why not even encouraged. There would be huge social benefits if more adults (post-college stage of life) would engage in learning in topics new to them. For one, it keeps the brain active and there have been findings that exercising the brain (as well as the body) protects from the onset of old-age dementia (some sources here and here). But for the shorter term, an employee with a well-exercised brain will only do their job better.

What’s more, learning often brings you in contact with like-minded people, online or in person. And this is good for the soul. Last weekend, I participated in the annual Zurich Writers Workshop where the organizers had invited Susan Jane Gilman, a wonderful author and teacher, to bestow a little wisdom on us participants. I came back from the workshop not only with a bag full of great writing advice but also with a heart full of appreciation and esteem for my fellow writers. I connected with so many lovely, generous people. All of these great new connections wouldn’t have been possible if I hadn’t put myself on the path of learning.

Staying an active student brings other, less tangible benefits too. Diversifying one’s knowledge of the world makes one more accepting of diversity and, in general, creates a more tolerant, motivated and engaged individual. And not to speak of a happier individual. I recently started a course for yoga instructors, and my insightful teacher emphasized the importance of the attitude of studentship: a state of mind characterized by openness of mind and of having the ability to create space within oneself to internalize something new. I think this attitude of curiosity and openness is essential in many aspects of life, and continued learning encourages us to stay flexible and youthful in our minds.

Now that I don’t work two jobs (research on top of writing), I have dedicated 1-2 hours per week to learning. For now, I’m using the time to catch up on some aspects of the writing craft, but I still keep an eye on that astronomy course. I encourage you, if you can, to carve some time out to finally follow your pet interests. It will keep you healthy, it will keep you sane, it will keep you young.

Image from Pablo

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