I recently listened to one of those Google Talks by Dr. Barbara Oakley on the topic, “Learning How to Learn.” Although a completely secular audience and atmosphere, I was impressed with the humility and magnanimity of this woman.
This lovely lady did not fall into the jargonny academicism that so many PhD’s can fall into. She was a truly masterful teacher. She cared about learning and about giving everyone, no matter how “smart,” the ability and tools needed to experience the joys of learning.
She used thoughtful metaphors and concrete examples to demonstrate several aspects of the brain, different modes of learning, different kinds of thinkers, and gave practical techniques for how to build your knowledge effectively. At no point did you feel that she was way above your level or that she was patronizing in any way. She portrayed the value of all kinds of thinkers and how we can use our various ways of learning to complement one another and share in a larger community of learning. She could almost just as well have been talking about the various gifts of the Spirit and the communion of saints in the Church. I enjoyed it thoroughly and I encourage you to listen to the full talk if you get the chance.
However, the highlight of the talk for me was her final word of advice to this group of Google workers. It was here that her ethos really won me over. As successful as she has been in her life, she was not complacent in having accomplished so much. She did not look down on those who do less and puff herself up for having done more. Rather, she left her audience with a call to pursue greater excellence. Here are her concluding remarks:
“We’re often told, ‘Follow your passion–that is the key to everything! Just follow your passion and your life will really be a better place for it.’ We’re told that. But, your passion develops about what you’re really good at. And some things take much longer to get good at. So, don’t just follow your passions. Broaden your passions! And your lives will be greatly enriched.”
I think this advice is pertinent to the ongoing conversation and thoughts some of us are having about re-enchanting our lives while being bound to our times. Our desire to live an enchanted life is, I think, a desire to broaden our passions. But, like Dr. Oakley says, it takes time to get good at things and develop our passions. In short, it takes time to fall in love. That falling in love is what re-enchants, but it has to be genuine. To be in love is a disposition of the heart, which must be cultivated slowly and patiently.
I think Dr. Oakley’s insight about procrastination and how to overcome it can apply in this situation. When we our afraid of something we don’t know, we procrastinate by distracting ourselves with things that please us. She says that this procrastination can become an addiction because we are essentially training ourselves to retreat from the unknown fearful object by indulging other lower passions. This can become a vicious cycle that prevents us from broadening our passions.
I think Dr. Oakley’s antidote to procrastination is good advice for how to broaden our passions realistically. She talks about committing to a certain, limited amount of time for focused thinking. By limiting yourself to just giving the time, you don’t have to worry so much about being afraid because it will be over soon. But if you commit to giving that set time again and again, you will eventually feel less afraid and learn to fall in love.
To do this, we must be patient with ourselves, and do one thing at a time, which is difficult when you have high ideals and you’re afraid of being mediocre. We are so hyper-aware of how much good we can do and ought to do (and how little of it we can do) that we find ourselves overwhelmed by the possibilities and don’t actually do anything. We get stuck waiting for the right time, when all the circumstances will be right, when all will align and we can live that perfect romantic life we desire. That’s just procrastination, motivated by fear and pride, and it’s hard to overcome. To broaden our passions takes time, and so we must give ourselves that time.
This is somewhat unfinished, but I wanted to share Dr. Oakley’s talk because I was grateful that it was shared with me. And it’s a somewhat different kind of person than we’re used to hearing. I hope it can broaden your passions to listen and I hope to continue these thoughts later.