Learning without a Syllabus

I’d like to label myself a lifelong learner—someone who is self-motivated and voluntarily seeks knowledge, whether it be for personal or professional reasons. I do believe this describes who I am, although sometimes I lack the motivation or find myself stuck in an endless loop of checking Facebook and Twitter feeds and never accomplishing anything. Of course, I’m bound to peruse a few shared articles that might teach me something new, but the majority of this content isn’t substantial (even if these five cleaning hacks with a paperclip really will transform my life). I need mental stimulation, whereas this endless scrolling and switching between social apps leaves me with a feeling of anxiousness: I’m wasting time, I’m not being productive, I could be doing something better. But what?

One aspect of college I miss most is having guided direction to explore through research, writing, and open dialogue. (Typically this leads to self-exploration, but I’ll save that for another post.) While there’s nothing to stop any of us from continuing this process, it’s not something we often think to do, but we should! There is such easy access to information at our fingertips, which sometimes may be overwhelming, but that’s still not an excuse. I’ve made a conscious effort over the last year to keep learning through various mediums in a way to both entertain and inform myself.

There is an abundance of choices out there for ways to learn (books, online courses, YouTube videos, etc.), but these are a few of my go-to methods.

Podcasts are a great way to learn because they’re easy. Put on some headphones, click play, and listen. Done. Yes, I promise it’s that easy. But if you’re like me and an abundance of choices intimidates you, then take a deep breath and think about what you’re in the mood for as if you’re determining which radio station to listen to. What are your interests? Current events? Food? Technology? There are podcasts for all of that. Start with a Google search, click some links, and try one out. If a Google search is too much, NPR has a variety of podcasts topics and is a great place to start or check your favorite media outlets to see what type of podcasts they produce.

Typically, I listen to podcasts in the background as I do some light work, throughout my commute, or when I take walks around my neighborhood.

Watch informational and interesting documentaries. Netflix is the place to go for this. In just the last week I’ve watched Abstract: The Art of Design where great creators have shaped our world with their ideas; Chef’s Table, the story of renowned chefs and what sets them apart; and Minimalism, a lifestyle of living with less things that are truly important. These topics are interesting, fun, and even innovative. The content is easy to digest and is right there for you to watch. Netflix hosts documentaries that explore the depths of important issues, such as incarceration rates (The 13th), drug addictions (Warning: This Drug May Kill You), and climate change (Before the Flood). Instead of watching a re-run of Friends for the millionth time (which is very hard for me to pass up), spend your down time educating yourself. You may even stumble over a topic you decide to explore more at another time.

Of course, my favorite method is reading. Long form articles, books, blog pieces, Trump’s tweets. All fantastic ways to get the gears turning. Don’t wait until you find an interesting piece on your Facebook feed. Search for the content! Find some websites that host content you enjoy, bookmark them, and dedicate 30 minutes to an hour each day reading content from these sites. Personally, I enjoy Longreads, Medium, The New Yorker, Brain Pickings, and, of course, The Atlantic.

Take the information you’re discovering and really enjoy this process. Allow yourself to comprehend the content and your initial reactions. I keep a notebook handy (when possible) and jot down key facts that stick out, words I’m not sure of, or facets I want to further look into. This way I can continually return to what I watched, listened to, or read and quickly recover my thoughts on the topic. I find it most beneficial to have a conversation with someone who is and isn’t familiar on the subject (this should provide you a range of viewpoints). This can further enlighten you on the subject and hopefully allow you to look at something from another side. (But if your friend eats nothing but TV dinners, don’t expect them to get all excited about 5-star restaurants and their chefs.) All of this—discovering, contemplating, sharing—should be viewed as an investment into yourself.

Learning can even be taken further than discussion and turned into action drawn from inspiration. An educational documentary may rally your spirit to get involved in fighting for a cause you believe in, but didn’t know about before. You may be inspired to learn to cook with new ingredients, or decide to think about more than yourself and the global impact your decisions could have. You can do anything isn’t a cliché unless you let it be. But the first step is learning, and only you can guide yourself down that path.

By doing all of this, I find myself feeling more productive and less anxious about wasting time. If I watch a two-hour documentary, I feel slightly less guilty about breezing through a half a season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and allow myself this time to relax and tune out for a bit.

If this feels like a homework assignment, okay I get it. But you’re the teacher. If you’re listening to a podcast and zoning out because it’s boring or skimming an article without processing more than few words, you can stop and find something that better suits you.


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