Ask Colin: Lifelong Learning

I’ve been thinking about taking some classes at my local community college, or maybe some online courses, because I’ve found myself with some free time after a breakup, and though I think I’m doing okay with that, I’m hoping to use that time on something that will help me grow.

Any advice on how to decide what to learn? I don’t really know where to start, it all seems like it might be useful?

Sincerely,

Sean

Hey Sean-

First, it’s great that you’re thinking about using your newly freed-up time in this way. Breakups can be tough for all kinds of reasons, and though it sounds like you’re in a good spot with that, it’s all too common to either immediately fling oneself at the next person who’s willing to give us the time of day, or to waste that time in one of the many (not necessarily beneficial) ways we’re offered by marketers of various stripes.

I, personally, found a two-year period during which I consciously decided not to date to be massively productive and valuable. It was instrumental in helping me become who I am now, actually, as I learned a great deal—how to cook, how to play the piano, how to start and run a podcast—but I also got comfortable being by myself, flourishing alone, and that allowed me to be a better partner when I started to date again. It also just made life a lot more interesting and fulfilling for me, internally.

That said, there are countless criteria you could use to figure out where to allocate the time you now have available for new educational pursuits.

Consider starting your search with things that are either adjacent to, or quite fair afield from, what you currently know and are comfortable with.

So if you’re already familiar with the graphics software Photoshop, maybe learn to use Blender, a 3D graphics and animation program. If you know how to play the saxophone, maybe learn to play the guitar, or how to use audio production software. If you’re a writer, learn to build a blog.

The purpose of this path is to start from something you know, and then use that familiarity as an advantage in a new space about which you know relatively less.

If you can already write, that’s a leg up when you’re building a blog—there’ll still be other things to learn, but you’ve got the stringing-words-together side of things covered.

The same is true if you’re learning to use audio production software and you already play an instrument. That music knowledge won’t necessarily mean you know anything at all about computers or software or the user-interfaces of Ableton or FL Studio, but it will mean you know something about the theory underpinning sound, what bits and pieces of information you’re manipulating, what sort of outcome you’re looking for, and the like.

The other heuristic I mentioned—aiming for something entirely unfamiliar—can be valuable in a different way.

If you already know how to code in C and you learn to code in Python, that’s not the exact same thing, but there are enough commonalities that it could be, in some ways, construed as just an expansion of an already comfortable space. You know how to code, and you’re learning to code in a new language.

If you decide to learn to kayak, despite never having done anything like that before—no canoeing, no cycling, no boat or boat-like experience—then you’re expanding your horizons far beyond where they are now. Your coding skills won’t help you kayak.

Now, it is likely that some skill or innate talent you didn’t realize you had will come in handy when you start learning to kayak. But going in, you’ll have little idea what to expect, and only the foggiest of notions as to how you’ll perform.

It’s a much bigger risk to take this kind of leap, because you don’t know how you’ll do and you don’t know what’s involved in acquiring the knowledge and skills in question. You also don’t know if you’ll actually enjoy it, if it will be relevant to your life—fundamental things like that.

The main benefit of this kind of risky jump into the unknown, though, is that it dramatically increases your range of knowledge, expanding your sense of what’s out there, what’s possible, and even yourself: who you are, what you’re capable of.

Optimally, in my mind, anyway, we’re all always learning new things, intellectually expounding in all directions, increasing our mental maps of the epistemological world until we’re skilled cognitive cartographers, facing the unfamiliar on a regular basis and increasingly comfortable with that feeling, while also, alongside those brazen leaps, iterating our existing bodies of knowledge so that the points are sharper and our wielding of that ever-expanding expertise is more confident each day.

Time is a key factor limiting that type of investment, of course, and there’s no shame in not being able to make education beyond one’s realm of current expertise a priority: it’s competing with myriad other, also quite vital and valid priorities, like health, family, psychological well-being, and other things of that nature.

If you do find yourself with the time and willingness, though, consider using this rough template:

Choose something that you already know about and know how to do, and expand on that, taking your know-how in that area up a significant notch.

Alongside that, choose something totally outside your wheelhouse, something almost random-seeming—feel free to literally randomize your selection, if you’re having trouble coming up with anything suitable—and pursue that path just as assiduously as you do the other, opening yourself up to the possibility that it may turn out to be one of your favorite things in the world, once you know more about it.

That latter exploration may or may not lead to something life-defining for you, but adding that type of expansion-focused education to our lives can ensure we don’t accidentally trap ourselves in intellectual silos and limit our perception, while also adding variables to our lives that can help keep us beneficially humble—we may truly suck at the new things we try, at least at first—but as an experience, such novelty can also be just wildly interesting and fun.





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