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Live and Learn: Top 10 Ways to Stay a Lifelong Learner

Updated on

As the 2016–17 school year opens, parents and kids are preparing for major changes in routine. You may be thinking about going back to school yourself, especially if a bout with chemical dependence interrupted your education.

But even if you have all the degrees you want, learning shouldn’t be shelved with “that’s that” relief once you reach a predetermined level of formal education. You already know what happens when you try to hang onto your comfort zone at all costs: life grabs the initiative and teaches you some uncomfortable lessons. The world’s changes, opportunities, and demands never reach a permanent resting point; neither should your goal to make all you can of your life.

The proactive and effective approach is to reserve part of your life for learning things you really want to know. Here are some ideas for writing your own “life curriculum”:

1. Take a continuing education course

Whatever your interest—poetry writing, local history, graphic art, vegetarian cooking—there are low-cost courses available, taught by credentialed experts. Ask your nearest community center, hobby shop, or religious center; or Google “continuing education [your city or town].”

2. Audit a college class

If the course that interests you is part of the academic program at a college or university, ask the department head or course instructor about “audit” options, which will let you take the class without being graded for it. Expenses and assignments are negotiated on an individual basis.

3. Read, read, read!

If you’ve never had a library card—or have let it lapse—now is the time to update your access to free reading. Then pick a subject that interests you and scour the nonfiction shelves on that topic. (If there’s a shortage of titles at your local branch, check the whole catalog if you’re part of a larger library system—and check WorldCat and Amazon for additional titles you can request through inter-library loan.) Just a half hour of reading each evening will get the average person through 20–50 books a year.

Read magazines (both electronic and print) as well. There are periodicals on virtually every topic and hobby; check the Writer’s Market in your library’s reference section for an abundance of titles.

4. Go to a museum movie

If you still prefer “moving pictures” to words on a page—there’s more onscreen than news, sports, and overdone plots. Check your nearest museum for documentary films open to the public (many big-city museums even have full theaters). While you’re there, take the opportunity to visit the rest of the museum, especially any exhibits related to the film.

And if you must stay home and watch television, tune to PBS or another educational channel.

5. Take a “road trip” on the Internet

Granted, a lot of online offerings are junk reading and propaganda; but if you start with the right website, you can pick up a lot of useful information in two or three hours of link-to-link surfing. Choose a topic that interests you and look up a well-established site heavy with articles on that topic (examples: PsychCentral.com, NASA.gov, National Wildlife Federation). Pick one article on the front page, and read it in full.

Then pick one link from the article you’ve just finished (a link highlighted as an example of valuable perspective), click it, and read another article. (If there are no links in your first article of choice, return to your starting page and choose another article from there.) Repeat. See where your surfing takes you.

6. Take a real-world trip

Even if your budget is limited, you may be able to visit old friends, stay a weekend at a retreat center, or camp out in a state park. Any change of scenery brings new experiences and new perspectives. (Travel by train or bus—or boat—if you can; they offer the best opportunities for additional observations en route.)

7. Be a tourist in your home town

If getting even a short distance out of town is not an option, visit your Chamber of Commerce or parks department, and ask about local landmarks and monuments. Most of us know surprisingly little about the things we’ve spent years living near!

8. Ask a question of a child

If you don’t have kids, borrow one for a day, or volunteer as an assistant supervisor in a children’s program. Children are full of questions and ideas. Ask them why they think the sky is blue, how they would handle an organizing or planning problem. At the least, you’ll gain new insight into the capabilities of human imagination; surprisingly often, you’ll actually get practical solutions.

9. Try a new form of exercise

If you usually walk, go for a swim. If you’re a gym aficionado, get outside. If you’ve been purely aerobic, take a yoga class. And if it’s been years since you had any exercise worth noting—try something, anything active on a daily basis for two weeks. (Remember to make a “tutoring appointment” with your doctor before trying anything that might put unprecedented strain on your body.)

10. Eat cheesecake for breakfast

That’s really an expression meaning “do something that feels a little crazy,” so don’t worry if actual cheesecake isn’t on your diet. You can apply the same principle by taking your daily walk on tiptoe, watching television with the sound off, or sleeping on the living room floor on an air mattress. “Breaking routine” in an unusual way is a proven technique for developing the habit of thinking outside the box.

“Live and learn” frequently refers to things learned the hard way; but really, learning should be inseparable from everyday living. Nothing, including the brain, can live long without changing; let’s keep our brains changing for the better!

Check out this article for more sober hobby ideas.

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