Personal Essay: The Pursuit of Lifelong Learning

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By Dave Hood

“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”—Dr.Seuss, “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut!”

Unfortunately, many people stop learning once they graduate from high school, college, or university. They never read a book or learn another useful skill again. I believe that everyone should be lifelong learners. It makes for a more interesting and enjoyable life. Furthermore, it enhances well-being. What is lifelong learning? It is self-motivated, voluntary, and continuous learning throughout one’s life—an ongoing quest for knowledge and skills, whether or not a person is in an educational setting.

How does a person embrace lifelong learning? You don’t achieve it by watching reruns of sitcoms or reality television, such as The Bachelor. Travel can be a good method, providing you don’t see the sights by bus or spend your time in a five-star hotel next to the pool. You learn by immersion in new people, new culture, new places, new experiences, education, new types of work, where you acquire new skills and expand your knowledge and polish your expertise. Instead of becoming like moldy loaf of bread that sits on the counter, you learn. What follows is what I consider easy and powerful methods for lifelong learning.

My Approach to Learning
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with information overload. Every day, newspapers report on the news and magazine publications, such as The Atlantic or The New Yorker, which publish poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction essays. Every business has a web presence, where they promote and sell their products and services. Everyone can use their smartphones to take photos and publish them on the Web for the world to see. I know that countless books are published each year. We are continually being bombarded with new information. For instance, in Canada, 20,000 new books are published every year. It is not humanly possible to stay informed about all the discoveries, new inventions, innovations, new movies, plays, music added to popular culture. So what is a person to do? Rather than learn or read or follow everything in the media or on the Internet, I focus my time and attention on learning things related to my passions and interests.

Learning in an Educational Institution
One of the easiest ways to learn is to take courses, or enroll in a diploma, certificate, or degree program. My first serious learning began in 1978, when I enrolled in a liberal arts program at the University of Toronto. I took courses I had never heard of, subjects like anthropology, political science, philosophy, sociology, medieval history. The more I learned in these and other liberal arts courses, the more I became curious, the more questions I had.

Each field of study had its own set of concepts, theories, terminology, and experts. The more I read, studied, and learned about a particular topic, the more I realized how much there was to still to learn. For instance, in history, I could enroll in introductory American, Russian, Chinese, Eastern, British, Canadian, medieval, Renaissance history, and more.

Once I completed a course, I could enroll in more advanced courses, which would dig deeper into the subject. In 1983, I graduated with an Honours B.A, feeling confident and optimistic about the future. I had learned how to learn, met lots of interesting people, and expanded my mind with knowledge, and developed strong writing skills, as well as a motivation for lifelong learning. Though I didn’t qualify for a particular career, I enjoyed the courses in psychology, sociology, history, economics, political science, which helped me to develop liberal-minded thinking.

In 1995, Windows 95, with its Graphical User Interface, and the Internet were born. Knowing little about computers and nothing about the Web, I became motivated to learn how to use the Internet as a tool for conducting research and how to use word processing software as a writing tool, so I took a couple of courses. Enjoying the experience working with digital technologies, I enrolled in a Computer Programming Diploma at Sheridan college in Oakville, Ontario. For the next two years, I learned how to write software programs using the computer languages of C, C++, Visual Basic, and HTML. I also learned how to use Netscape, one of the first Web browsers. I learned to use MS Word, Excel, and Power Point. And I learned to design and create a Website and write technical documentation, including online help, Web content, and user guides. After graduating from the computer program at college, I applied for a job as a Technical Writer, where I worked writing Web content, printed documentation, and online help for the next few years. It was this learning in information technology that opened doors to better employment.

My learning in an educational setting stopped for about 15 years, until the the birth of the digital camera and the digital darkroom. In 2007, I developed a strong interest in creative pursuits and strong desire to express my creative spirit. So I have taken up digital photography, enrolling a Digital Photography courses at Ryerson University in Toronto in the fall of 2011. I have learned how to see creatively, shoot in Aperture priority, manual mode, and shutter priority with a variety of lens. I have also learning how to use Lightroom and Photoshop, software that allows you to edit digital photographs and apply special effects like those of Instagram. I have learned that photography is a way to make a social commentary, document the human condition, create different types of art, and express my creative vision of the world. You can see my work at http://www.davehoodphotography.org .

Learning by Reading Magazines and Books
Reading is an easy way to learn new facts and concepts related to a particular topic, as well as learn to write and develop your vocabulary.
It’s also one of the best methods of learning, especially if you are not enrolled in college or university. Read books of interest or books on what you are passionate about. In fact, it is the easiest way to embrace lifelong learning. After graduating, I read several biographies of a historical people and books on the Cold War and political books. But then the Cold War ended, attack politics became the norm, and the economic problems of unemployment, slow growth, poverty were never solved, and so I became disenchanted and bored and moved into reading books on psychology. Some books that stand out are self-help books, like The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People by Steven Covey and How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. However, in the mid 90s, the dawn of the digital age diverted my attention away from reading history and psychology books to reading books and magazines related to information technology, such as Wired magazine.

The more knowledge I soaked up from reading, the more I realized how there are so many things in life’s journey that are captivating and awe-inspiring. They sparked my curiosity to know why. For instance, a few weeks ago, I read Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything” by Joshua Foer. It was a fascinating read, and I learned how to improve my memory by learning a few techniques of mnemonics (memory devices). One particular device “blue my mind”—the memory palace or method of loci. Clearly, my reading had led me to something knew and enchanting, something that could benefit me.

Personal Learning Projects
While attending university during the 1980s, I desired to become a writer–but my writing skills weren’t very good. I didn’t know the difference between a phrase or a clause, the active voice or the passive voice, how to structure an essay, different parts of speech, and so forth. After my first year of university, my writing was so poor that I received two grades of D+. These poor marks motivated me to learn how to write, and so I purchased a couple of textbooks and began to study. I taught myself everything there is to know about parts of speech, parts of a sentence, grammar, mechanics, punctuation, different types of paragraphs, various types of sentences, and how to structure different types of essays.

As well, I mastered the advice of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” the classic, short text that provides the essentials of writing style. (Every college and university student should own a copy and internalize the writing advice.)To expand my vocabulary, I began learning a new word each day, words like cornucopia, grandiloquent, serendipity. The following year, my grades improved by 20%. This experience of self-directed learning enabled me to improve my writing skills and increase my confidence. I felt that I could write about anything. I also began to view myself as a writer–an unpublished writer.

And then the Internet opened digital publishing. In 2009, I decided to immerse myself in Creative Writing—poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. My self-study project began by finding out what where the best books on learning to write poetry, short fiction, and personal essays. I unearthed this information at Poets & Writers website and Amazon.com, and then I purchased more than 40 books on these creative writing topics. For the next five years, I learned how to write free verse poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction in my leisure time. I also created and wrote creative writing articles on a blog called “Find Your Creative Muse.” Last year, I rewrote the blog articles and published an eBook called “The Art and Craft of Creative Writing” on Amazon.com. Presently, I am working on writing poetry, fiction, personal essays, with the hope of publishing in a literary journal. I have learned that creative writing gives me the freedom to express my creative spirit and authenticity.

What I have Learned from Lifelong Learning
It has enabled me to escape the drudgery of daily life. I rarely become bored, because I’m always learning something new. In other words, learning distracts me from my existential existence.

Learning has provided me with lifetime skills in writing, computers, information technology, digital photography, as well as a wide-variety of interests and passions. Unwittingly, this learning also helped me to setup and create a blog on WordPress, which has allowed me to express my passion for writing.

By reading widely and deeply, I have developed my writing skills and acquired a treasure trove of topics to write about and discuss with others.

Rather than learn or read or follow everything, I focus my time and attention on learning about things related to my passions and interests.

The best kind of learning involves combining a skill and knowledge with some creative pursuit, such as writing, painting, photography, playing the piano. The combination of skill and knowledge will allow you to express your creativity, share your thoughts and feelings about your life’s journey, as well as make social commentary about a world that is forever changing. The next best learning is acquiring knowledge and skill for work you love.

Lifelong learning has also improved my well-being. Instead of worrying or focusing on the past, I now focus my time and energy on writing and photography in the present. By doing this, I have added meaning and purpose, as well as injected enjoyment into my life.

I embrace what the philosopher Socrates wrote: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” And so, learning has allowed me to explore and attempt to answer those haunting questions about the mysteries of life. Learning has introduced me to new ideas, concepts, different points of view, different modes of thinking. I perceive the world with an open mindset. I am liberal minded and tolerant of differences.

I have discovered that learning enriches life experiences. For instance, the person who doesn’t understand “art” will look at some abstract painting and say,” That’s stupid.” But the person who has studied the history of art and learned the techniques of painting will be able to analyze, interpret, and appreciate the artwork.

And the more I have learned, the more I have realized how little I know. It was Voltaire who said, “The more I read, the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.”

If you are bored with your life or seek to improve your sense of well-being, discover your passion and then immerse yourself in it. Begin by learning.

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About Dave Hood

Lover of poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction. Professional photographer and writer. Without the arts, life would be rather mundane, like a walk down the same old path on a dull day.
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