“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” –Isaac Asimov
One day in my twenties, I was suddenly struck by the idea that I simply must learn more about Western Europe, and that I must see it firsthand to do so. The idea would not go away. It had to be done. So, I stuffed my backpack, hopped on a plane bound for Amsterdam, and wandered around for a few months. The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, Greece, France, Spain, Luxembourg, Belgium. It was a genuine mind-opener and heart-opener for me. Along the way, mostly to be a courteous guest but also out of pure curiosity, I learned the most elementary phrases in each of the languages: Good morning! Do you speak English? Good-bye! How much does it cost? Excuse me, but where is the toilet? What time does the train to Paris leave the station? Thank you very much! That kind of stuff.
I had Spanish in high school and was already okay with that, but the rest I had to start from scratch. I liked it, though, both the challenge and what it opened up in the interactions with the locals. Most of them spoke English–what a relief–but they appreciated my effort. It made me appreciate their effort to learn my language so well, and it made me envious of their knowledge. How lucky to have a mind with such useful information, like a key to a room with more Happiness inside.
Still, in my first few countries, the sounds of the Dutch, German, Austrian, and Swiss people on their own did not sing to my ears and draw me in like a siren’s song (the German language is pretty unpleasant for me, actually).
However, a magical thing happened to me on the morning that I descended the Swiss Alps into Northern Italy, bound for Verona. I happened to be sharing a train compartment with a young girl and her mother, as well as an old woman riding alone. We emerged from the majestic Alps into this lovely, rolling land and pulled into the station of the first town on the Italian side of the border. The mother, young girl, and I stayed in our seats, clearly pressing on to destinations further down the line. But slowly, the old woman rose from her seat and gathered her belongings. Then, just before she turned to go, she looked into the eyes of the little girl and said with such flavor, “Ciao, bella!” I swooned. It was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard. And right there in those two words, I fell madly in love with the Italian language.
I walked around with a smile on my face for two weeks, repeating the phrases and the dynamic inflections–even the accompanying gestures–that I heard from the people on the street. I loved all the words, even when I didn’t know what they meant.
When I left that enchanted land, I was determined to do two things: 1) return to Italy as soon as possible; and 2) learn that beautiful language. I am pleased to report that I nailed the first one and loved it more each time I went back. I cannot, however, claim any success on the second.
I never learned Italian. But I still want to. It has become a life goal to speak it passably, much as it has been my aim to bring my level of Spanish from high school quality up to fluency. Trust me when I tell you: I have a loooooong way to go! There is so much to learn! I would like to achieve both of these before I die, however. They are just the start of a sort of “bucket list” for my brain.
I have decided that everyone should have one of these lists, separate from the regular bucket list that we are accustomed to talking about, the one with all of the cool things we will do before we die. For one, I find it so important to have plans and goals and things to dream about. These things give us Hope and Purpose. They put spring in our steps. However, whether hampered by age, fear, income, disability, or something else, we are not all going to be able to skydive, run a marathon, visit Machu Picchu, or swim with the dolphins. But we can all have adventures of the mind. And we should!
Learning gives us life in so many ways. It breeds empathy. It sparks our imagination. It helps us to better understand ourselves and how we connect with the world around us. It gives us Wisdom. It inspires us. It does all of that and more for me, so I am planning to stuff my brain full of new skills, ideas, and stories until my last breath goes out of me. These are some of the things–other than becoming trilingual–on the top of my endless list:
Quantum Physics. I may be attempting to swim in a pool that is much too deep for my capacity, but I have always been fascinated by the tidbits about this science that I have picked up in other books. Mostly I love the idea of confirming in a more technical and specific way the idea that I have always felt in my bones to be true: that we truly are all connected, all One. I have no illusions about how difficult the brain work required will be, but I am game for the challenge if it means I get to better understand human existence.
Photography. I have been taking photographs for many years, and my favorites are continually updated on the walls all over my home. But as much as I enjoy, and even admire, some of the images I have captured, I have always been aware of how much my best shots are due to luck instead of true skill with the camera. I may have an eye for light, but I lack the true knowledge to use all of the camera’s variables–aperture, shutter speed, etc.–to create the level of art that I am striving for. I will not be satisfied until I gain competence in the finer points, whether that is through a class or just lots of reading and experimentation. I want to feel like a “real” photographer. I plan to get there.
Photoshop. This one goes with the last one, but it is also its own animal. As much as I enjoy taking the actual images, I am fascinated by those with the ability to play around with the images and create separate works of art out of the original art. It is technical but still artistic. That combination appeals to me. I can tell by how tickled I feel inside when I think about it that it is a tool that I must learn the intricacies of.
Nutrition. I don’t know how deep I really want to go with this, but I want to know more than I do. It just feels like there is a book or person out there for every possible nutrition idea–many of them competing ideas–and I just want to know the real deal about what I am putting into my body and how it is affecting me. More specifically, I want to know if there is a way I can be leaner and lighter without getting extreme in my discipline. There has to be a teacher out there for that, right? I must find her!
Green Initiatives. I am passionate about the issue of climate change and the effects of human activity–especially our extreme dependence upon fossil fuels–on our world, but I don’t feel well-enough informed on all of the science or all of the options for us to move forward. Mostly I want to be better able to have the conversation with regular folks who don’t have the issue on their radar. I would like to be a better example to my kids, too, both by sharing the knowledge and by modeling a greener lifestyle. Before I can do better, I have to know better. I am determined to know.
Astronomy. Because everything out there is totally awesome.
Instant Pot Cooking. I cook for my family almost every night of the year, and yet my repertoire is limited. I only tried a simple crock pot thing that my sister schooled me on in the last year, and I can see the potential. But this Instant Pot sounds like a ticket to a whole new level. I even got one for my wife last year because she agreed that it sounds amazing, but it is not doing me any good in the cupboard. I know the task is as simple as me digging out the instruction manual, then going to the store and start experimenting. I am a bit intimidated, I must admit. But I want to be a better, more creative cook. I just have to learn.
Podcasting & Audiobook Creation. When I wrote my book, I was so into each step of the process of publishing. It was incredibly tedious, but also so engaging and fulfilling to learn all of the skills. I made the bound book; I made the e-book. The one I never got to was the audiobook. I wish I had. And it’s not too late to learn. With as many people that have podcasts these days, I figure that has to be even easier. It would be fun to put these letters out to you in podcast form, too, to speak the words that I write. This sounds even more fun to learn than many of the others on this list. Bonus!
Guitar & Piano. I know this is not exactly “book learning” in the way some of the others are, but it is certainly an enrichment exercise for the mind (and the soul). I own both of these instruments, so I just need to seek out the instruction. I can start with books or YouTube, but I envision myself someday actually taking lessons from a live teacher. It is very important to me to keep Art in my life, and I definitely need help with this one.
That use of an instructor is a wrinkle for me. I can see from my list that while I could certainly be helped by taking real classes in these subjects (hello, Quantum Physics!), they are mostly things I can learn on my own if I just supply the time and the discipline. I can usually summon the discipline, but I struggle with the time. I placate myself by saying that surely that time will appear when my kids grow up, and that then I will treat myself to a first-class education in everything that I feel called to. Will there be enough time to get to it all before I die? Probably not, because learning one thing tends to multiply the spark to learn more. But I promise myself that I will try. No matter how little time I seem to have now, I will chip away at these big learning goals, dabbling in those I have already listed and probably many more.
I love the power in knowing that I can do this without anyone else’s time or permission. It’s on me. Because even though I have let myself down before regarding my ambitions, I much prefer the option to bet on myself. I don’t know how many days remain in my lifetime, but I can guarantee that they will be spent expanding my mind. I will be learning new skills and sharpening old ones, trying out new ideas and testing my wits, opening my soul to allow for new ways to create and express myself through the arts, listening to people’s stories, and sometimes just plain reading. There are so many things I have to know before I go!
How about you? What are you determined to learn before you die? Open your journal and your brain and consider what it is craving? First, how much of a learner are you? Are you like me and feel compelled to understand just about everything in your world, or are you not very curious? How has your level of curiosity and desire to learn new topics changed as you have aged? Has it been fairly constant? Does it change with the amount of free time you seem to have? Is there a topic that you wish you had studied in school? Which types of learning are you more drawn to at this age? Practical skills, like cooking or car maintenance? Does technology interest you? Artistic things, like painting or photography? Would you like to learn a musical instrument (or two)? How about pure knowledge for its own sake, like the sciences or history? Do you like to keep abreast of the important issues of the day, like climate change or health care alternatives? Are you into self-help practices? Would you rather learn other people’s stories in order to be more empathetic? How do you currently study up on the things you want to learn? Books? Classes, like Community Education or a local college? YouTube? Will you actually do the work on your own, or do you need a teacher to keep you on-task and accountable for your learning? Have you shown so far that you are willing to invest in yourself? Looking to the future, what are the things you still most want to learn? How do you prioritize them? Which are absolutely essential? Are there some that will have to wait longer to begin? Which of them would you most regret not learning if you were to die tomorrow? Will you ever be content with how much you know? Leave me a reply and let me know: What is on your Brain Bucket List?
Go & Grow,
P.S. If this resonated with you today, please share it with your community. The more you know….
P.P.S. If this type of deep examination of your life appeals to you, consider buying a copy of my book Journal of YOU: Uncovering The Beauty That Is Your Truth at your favorite online retailers. Namaste.