I remember a conversation I had with my mom about college classes. She said something very approving of making the effort to audit as many classes as possible, or at least sit in occasionally to learn some things.
As post from Seth Godin titled “The Initiator” made me think about this pretty closely:
” ‘I’m just here to learn.’
Learning is fine. Listening is good. Consensus is natural.
But initiating is rare and valuable and essential.
How often do you or your brand initiate rather than react? How often do you tweet instead of retweet? Invent rather than exploit?”
That last comment makes me feel a little guilty about content on this blog (since it’s pretty much all merely passive responses to interesting things I find), but that’s really beside the point I want to make. Godin is speaking about initiation as a quality of good business and marketing practices, and it’s certainly an idea that can be applied to “life” in general. But my thoughts were more geared to what I mentioned my mom said to me about auditing classes:
It’s easy to sit in a classroom and listen to the professor lecture about things, or read about great research in published papers and books. I like absorbing knowledge, and that’s why auditing classes or sitting in on lectures are so great – because you get to expose yourself to all this rich information. But sometimes I wonder what use this absorption and accumulation of textbook knowledge is, aside from a source of happiness, and being able to comment that you find something “interesting,” which is kind of a vague word. Unless you’re going to take these things a step further, is it worth the time?
I actually think this is one of the things about the Chinese attitude toward education that is a little bit inhibitory (this is a gross, gross generalization, and I don’t mean to be culturally insensitive at all). I think we’re taught pretty early on the listen to what teachers tell us, what professors lecture at us, and what we read from books; hardly are we ever really encouraged to think about things on our own or to ask those really good questions that hit the soft spot of what we know. Books and other sources of current knowledge are a sense of security for students who have been brought up this way, educationally. I think that’s why certain people really cling to studying textbook-style and feeling accomplishment in having a giant resevoir of information. And certainly, you need that in order to have a solid foundation on whatever it is you study or do.
But I would argue – and I’m just stating something that will sound blatantly obvious, but I know that I definitely take this for granted – that the other significant part (maybe even the majority) of being accomplished, and certainly the more difficult, is learning how to do something that no one else has ever done before. Most definitely, all of the influential people in this world have been the initiators and innovators, rather than those who merely show their abilities ot do what everyone else is already capable of. “Leadership,” in essence, is just that, right? There are people who follow well, who can do what they are told and be very diligent and meticulous about it, which is a great skill to have – I don’t underrate it in any way. But on the other hand, there are those who lead well, in that they have the ability to go far beyond that. My dad has always said to me, “I’m a good soldier…but I’m not as a good a thinker.”
In the science classes I took junior year, the peers I’ve been most impressed by asked the really good questions – the questions that the lecturer or researcher, and the scholarly field in general, didn’t have an answer to yet. And I don’t think I’ve ever been brought up to think about how best to ask those kinds of questions. Maybe my mental capacities just don’t allow me to think fast enough to keep up, but I think we can train ourselves to become those kinds of thinkers.
Back to my original context: while I definitely enjoy collecting information and knowledge, we obviously need to evaluate and prioritize our use of time and attention. Maybe it’s not worth the time and effort of merely superficially absorbing or going through the motions. While there are things that we could participate in just as “soldiers,” it’s much more remarkable – and fulfilling, I would argue – to be an initiator.
Some words of Thomas H. Huxley to muse upon:
Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.