With all this extra time on our hands right now, many of us are trying to put the time to good use. And while our hearts may have good intentions, what actually happened was we binged Tiger King. It's okay.
While we may have not poured through all the great books on our list, or picked up a new language yet, we still may; however, there is a pitfall we must be wary of if we are to actually complete those tasks.
At some point, when we were students, all of us can remember saying to our parents, "I'm never going to use this. Why do I have to study it?" Perhaps, you are a parent now and have had to gripe with your kid over that same question (ain't life a bitch?) and struggled to come up with a definitive answer. After all, you can't recall all those equations you learned in Mr. Callahan's Psychics class, let alone anything from Coach Bordeaux's Civics class or a single word from Mr. McClean's lecture on Hamlet.
But don't worry, there's science to back up your forgetfulness. While I loathe the statement, "science says," and, "research shows," (for a detailed reason why read the book called How to Lie with Statistics). Framing arguments aside, researchers found (see what I did there) high school psychology students did not score any better than non-high school psychology students in a college 101 course, nor did economics students, or physics.
For this, I turn to Dr. Richard Feynman, who said, "I DON'T believe I can really do without teaching...If you're teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them?"
I've always hated the saying, "Those who can do. Those who can't teach." I've never found it to be true. Most of the time, the person saying it is trying to undermine someone's authority and looking for you to be a conspirator.
The point is if you want to learn something, teach it. We can't explain something until we fully understand it until we become an expert at it. Therefore, rather than casually interacting with something, actively engage with it. Tear it apart. Rebuild it. Make it yours, until you can explain it with ease to someone else.
Yet, Feynman was not the only great mind which reached this conclusion. Benjamin Franklin has a famous method for teaching himself to write.
Franklin wanted to be a great writer but had no mentor but the books and articles he read. Therefore, he would consume the article and then try and reconstruct it from memory. Again, we see someone take an active role in using the material they read. Both Feynman and Franklin discovered that the best way to learn something is to move the material from the passive to the active.
This piece of advice was given to me by my Spanish teacher back in grade school, a bit of information I did not heed, and I still suck at Spanish. The best way to learn a foreign language is to use a foreign language. It's why full submersion techniques work. We must force ourselves to use the material in a fight or flight scenario.
Therefore, if I may use a cliche, we must practice what we preach, and we must use what we learn. Rather than simply read an article, engage with it in an essay. Rather than simply watch Ted Talks, translate them into your own language. Rather than merely watching a movie, break it apart into its beats and reconstruct the plot point by point.
And yet, there is still one more secret to unlocking the mystery of our carnivorous minds, and that is to be more selective in what we consume.
While we all wish we had the minds of Sherlock Holmes or Tony Stark, there is a reason why both characters are Hollywood wish fulfillment; however, even the Great Detective himself had the perfect advice for how to recall what we need to recall.
"You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has difficulty laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
If we are going to engage more with the things we want to learn, then we must learn to be judicious in what we allow into our mind attic. The Hedgehog principle teaches us to focus on depth, not width. We must all learn the power of focus. It is better to read one great book and genuinely engage with it, to go on the journey with the characters, to grapple with the philosophy, to examine the structure than read 100 novels just so you can share your stack on Instagram.
I will agree that in this day and age, we must be able to do a slew of different tasks. In a way, we must all be dilettantes, but there are things we engage with, and there are things we consume. We all had that one friend in high school who could give you every detail of the Star Wars universe from Legends to Knights of the Old Republic; however, deep down, we understood that it was, essentially, wasted knowledge.
Well, we live in a world today that lambasts us with entertainment. There have been more Star Wars stories created in the last decade than there were the previous thirty years. Allow your mind to follow every rabbit hole, and it will turn to mush. Think about it, if we actually used the advice from the first self-help book we ever read, would we need to read twenty more?
Time and time again, we come back to the same two pieces of advice: focus, and practice. One day we will be able to learn like Allen Strange and simply place our hands on a book and absorb all of its information (God help us if the same is true for Youtube videos), but until then, we must continue to use the old fashioned way.
Millions of great minds came before us, and they all came to the same conclusion. Be they Renaissance men like Feynman and Franklin, or fictional aficionados like Holmes, they learned the same lessons all our forefathers preached: do or make, don't just learn.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.