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Lifelong Learning

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Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

As part of our foundation work, I’ve been thinking a lot about learning and how we measure it, which got me thinking about how I measure my learning. We decided that our foundation would be a learning foundation, and now we’re trying to figure out what that means. It got me thinking because I would say that learning is one of my core values. I love to learn new things, and I value learning for the sake of it. So how do I know whether I’m living up to this value of “lifelong learning”?

Measuring learning is tricky, to begin with. Let’s take my writing as an example because it’s a rather defined skill. For instance, I can measure the number of books I’ve read about the craft of writing or even the amount of time I spend writing every day/week/month/year. But that doesn’t measure the improvement in my writing skills. I can define my learning outcomes as “being able to write a good book”, but then who decides if the book I wrote is “good”? For every measurement I can come up with here, there are other factors that are not purely my learning. Whether an agent decides to represent the book? That involves an enormous amount of luck and personal taste, not to mention what the agent thinks they can sell. How many people buy the book? That measures the marketing efforts invested in the book as much as it does the quality of the book. Whether I like the book? That involves a lot of inner criticism that sounds remarkably like my grandmother and probably has little to do with the actual quality. How long does it take me to write the next one? Again, there’s a lot of luck and timing and the presence or absence of family crises.

And that’s “learning to write fiction”, which is, as I mentioned, a defined skill. What about learning how to be a good parent? Or learning about myself? And then there’s the “lifelong” aspect of the concept. What does lifelong mean? Learn something new every day? Every year?

I don’t know the answers. There are lots of blogs out there trying to help, but the truth is that we have to define our own learning and our own ways of measuring them. I can think of several areas of learning that I measure in different ways. These are the areas I’m focusing on right now.

Learning about the World

I want to know what’s going on in the world around me. This includes mainly current events but also advances in science and technology, what’s the current thinking about society and its role in our lives, that sort of thing. For this, I have several goals:

  1. Stay up to date with current events - I do this by listening to podcasts: Today Explained is a good US/World overview. I also listen to Short Wave to know what’s up in the science world and the Guardian’s Today in Focus to know what’s happening in the UK.

  2. Be able to link current events with life, work, and society - Ideally, I would take notes while I listen, but I can’t say I do that. That’s a goal I need to work on. In the meantime, I also listen to the Tortoise Slow News podcast, which gives an excellent in-depth analysis of one story a week (it has a UK slant). I also listen to Code Switch, which teaches me how to look at current events from a racial justice point of view.

  3. Deeper analysis - I do this by reading relevant non-fiction books. I estimate I’ll read 3-5 relevant books this year.

Learning about Myself

I think this is a good skill for everyone and a critical skill for writers and artists. It’s vital for me, at least, to stay in touch with myself and to be able to take care of myself. Here, it’s more about the habits:

  1. Meditation - right now, I’m at 20 minutes daily. It gives me a window into my mind generally, but it’s a good way of figuring out where I am today.

  2. Morning pages - three pages daily. They include all sorts of things like finding positivity and planning my day, but it’s a space for me to figure out what I’m thinking and feeling today.

  3. Therapy - for me, therapy can’t be replaced by journalling, for instance, because a good therapist would challenge your beliefs, which is a great way to grow. Finding a good therapist is tricky, and I have, so I’m not letting her go any time soon.

Learning How to Write

The first two areas have no end by definition. Technically, learning how to write could have an end-point in which you “know how to write”. But it’s also a spiralling path of improvement, where you keep improving skills you thought you already knew how to use. So how do I learn about writing?

  1. Time for craft learning - I schedule about two hours a week. Some weeks I don’t get to the craft learning, true. But most weeks, I do. I read articles about specific skills; I watch webinars and courses about different aspects of the writing craft; and, yes, I read books about writing.

  2. Practice - I write every weekday for at least half an hour; most days, it’s over an hour. No getting around it: writers write.

  3. Feedback - I always get at least one person to read every story I write. Many of them will only ever be read by that one person. I’ll send some of the stories to others: my writing group, mentor, and friends. I’ll get their feedback and note it down because that’s how I can learn where my writing works and where it doesn’t. I also learn from feedback on my blog, although not enough people write back with that, so I can’t count on that.

  4. Edits - Some things I know I need to work on. That’s what edits are for. I do several rounds, but at least one of them will be “going through and putting in more descriptions”.

The sharp-eyed reader of this post would notice that I don’t measure the quality of my writing in any of the measures I mentioned above (agents take up, copies bought, etc.). I measure how long I spend investing in my craft because that’s what I can do right now. Besides, if I don’t schedule time for craft learning, I’d get too bogged down in the writing and the admin, and, like I said, learning is important to me.

Learning Music

This is a bit different, mostly because I see this as a hobby rather than “work”. I still have goals, though.

  1. Better control over my instrument (i.e., my voice) - I do this through voice lessons and practising.

  2. Music theory and general knowledge - ideally, I’d like to learn that. I don’t really know how, so I’m trying all kinds of things. One of the things is setting a time to listen to music that makes me feel uncomfortable. Luckily, there’s a teenage boy in the house to help with that. Another thing I’m trying is listening to Switched on Pop podcast, really just because I’m hoping I’d stumble on some tidbit or that the hosts’ knowledge will transfer to me in osmosis.

  3. Writing music - on hold for a bit, but I capture any inspiration and bits of music that come my way, and I have a vague plan to develop these into songs at some point in the future. Probably after I finish the book I’m working on.

This turned out to be a rather long post. I was going to talk about what it means to be a “lifelong learner” based on science, but I’ll leave it to the next post. In the meantime, this has been a useful exercise for me—it helped me think about my areas of learning and what I want to achieve with them. These aren’t the only areas, but I think I’m converging towards a general model of “how I learn stuff”, which would be handy later on, I’m sure.

In case you managed to read all of this, just to note that we’re leaving at the end of this week for our Easter break. I’ll probably post again here at the end of April or early May.

In the meantime, have a great spring!


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