Write to Learn

“Ada and Eve before the Tree of Knowledge” by Jan Pietersz, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Adam and Eve before the Tree of Knowledge” by Jan Pietersz, courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

I don’t feel my age. I’m excited by the many interesting subjects and places I have yet to explore. This results in a discovery mindset that keeps me young. Those who turn themselves off to learning lose this spark.

Our culture has a strange relationship with learning, though. We confuse education for a place: a school house, library, or university campus. Perhaps this is why education is so compartmentalized. We send our kids to school to “learn,” and treat this act as complete, once they graduate. Meanwhile, we think kids are just fooling around, when they play.

I experienced the opposite. I found classrooms stifling, and learned better when I followed my curiosity. In fact the “fooling around” my grade school teachers asked me to stop, is now how I make a living. To the point, though, our broken perspective on learning leads us to see it as a chore. Additionally, few of us believe we are equipped to learn on our own. It isn’t that we’re incapable of learning without an institution. We just weren’t trained to do so.

I’m not an educator, nor am I equipped to identify all the forms of educating oneself. However, I can share one approach I’ve found useful: I write. And the more I write, the more I see this activity as part of who I am.

I often say, “I write not because I know, but as a way to find out.” This distinction is important for me, as it buys me more licence to make mistakes. Others are sometimes less comfortable with this approach. They misread what I write as absolute, and get in touch to tell me how wrong/stupid I am. I like when people tell me I’m wrong—especially when they explain why they think so. I’m less thrilled by name calling, but even that helps me grow (a thicker skin).

I only taught briefly, but even that experience was illuminating. From it I discovered that teaching is a great way to learn. Regardless of your knowledge on a topic, teaching forces you to tighten your grip on the details. In clarifying foggy points, rereading material, and refreshing your memory, you learn a lot.

Writing is teaching. You select a topic, organize your hunches/points, conduct research, and compile notes. Then, you link your observations, findings, and data in an organized argument. As you move through this process, you challenge your understanding. This scrutiny reinforces learnings and leads you to form stronger opinions.

Blogs are a useful tool in this process. You can use one to house your thinking, solicit feedback, and reflect on past writing. Some worry they aren’t sufficiently informed on a topic to start a blog. Such hesitation represents a missed opportunity. Blogs aren’t just about what you know; they’re a type of apparatus for educating yourself.

If you’d like to try blogging, you might benefit from first doing so informally. Pick a topic you’re interested in, find a platform, and write. You’ll also benefit from establishing a format and schedule. Again, keep this simple. For example, you could commit to writing a 500 word post on one small topic, every morning.

This might sound like a big commitment. In actuality, writing daily is easy. The frequency, and length restriction, forces you to not fret your words too much. Plus, the hour of practice will strengthen your skills—much like daily push-ups would. Writing for 8 or 10 hours a day is taxing, but an hour will sharpen you mind for the day ahead.

To avoid getting blocked, I suggest first brainstorming 50 titles for future posts. Not sure how to pull smaller points out of your general topic? Try making them questions you’d like to learn the answer to. This will force you to seek out certain information—and you’ll learn by doing so.

As you conduct your research, keep a list of other findings you stumble upon. These will help you come up with other article subjects, later.

What you produce might not seem interesting or worth posting. That’s OK. I suggest you post these articles, in spite of your misgivings. Even if some posts seem boring, you’ll see these different in a year’s time.

Learning doesn’t always feel like learning; in fact, learning is often a byproduct of doing. So pick something—pick anything—and immerse yourself in that topic. Even the most banal subjects hide great stories, if you’re willing to look.

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