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Learning for a Lifetime

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Over the past few months while I’ve been looking for the next step in my career, I’ve been gifted the invaluable item of time. During this period, I’ve chosen to take stock of my skills and abilities and start to work on preparing myself for the job I want to have 5-10 years down the line. For me, this involves learning new things and signing up for an online course through the University of Florida in the field of Text Analysis (i.e. a grad-level methods course).
Given that I just left a research job - and am looking for much of the same kind of work, I figured that this class would be a chance for me to both expand my knowledge, and give me some good skills to put on my resume. The course, offered via the American Anthropological Association and the National Science Foundation, offers both academic and professional social scientists a chance to brush up on their qualitative and quantitative research skills in an effort to put us on par with some of the more science and numbers-based fields.

I am one who loves learning, so going back and taking a class for me is like a duck in water. I love it and it feels natural. It has been a number of years, however, since I’ve stretched these brain muscles to work in such a way and that has been a challenge. Learning, I’ve realized, is like exercise. It is something we can easily take for granted, but if we don’t work our brain to think in new and different ways, it is easy for those muscles to become dormant and not as strong as they used to be.

Not all of us have the time or the resources to take a class, but I do believe that constantly learning is something we can all do better. Here are a few simple things you can try to exercise your brain:

Learning another point of view

A quick way to learn about a topic from a different point of view is to read outlets that you never venture to - particularly respected journalists and pundits on the other side of your political spectrum. Take time to really read their articles and reserve judgement until you have finished reading the piece. Also, seek out publications that require a little more brain power to get through, and aren’t just looking for click-bait. I enjoy reading articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, or some longer expose pieces in the NY Times, the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune or LA Times, as a start. Podcasts are also a fun way to do this. I’ve just started listening to How I Built This on NPR. The Washington Posts’ recent series Presidential is also incredibly interesting!

Read a good book

Ok, I am a bookworm so this one comes natural to me. I recognize that many of you may not be big readers, but there is no better way to expand your mind and horizons and go to new worlds without leaving the comfort of your chair (or even iPhone!). I like to alternate a good fiction book with a non-fiction book - particularly biographies. Right now I am reading a book about Queen Mary - Queen Elizabeth I’s older half-sister. It isn’t the best book ever,  but I do enjoy learning new tidbits about Tudor England (one of my favorite periods to study). The next book I have ready on my shelf to read is The Spirit Level. It was recommended by a professor on a listserv and I thought I would check it out. Regardless of what you read, try to seek out new genres and authors to give your mind a break. If you are looking for a good place to get ideas for books to read, sign up for Goodreads.com (basically a Facebook for book lovers).

At work, seek out counterarguments, or challenges to your work

This is a key point to helping yourself be better and think more critically about your work. When you next present an idea to a person or a group of people - invite criticism. Ask the group, “What ideas am I missing? Or what about my analysis is incorrect?” Inviting this helps others to feel comfortable testing your ideas, and can ultimately lead to a better outcome for the project and team. Also showing you are open to testing I think helps to set a standard for honesty and critical thinking in any organization.

Participate in, learn or experience the fine arts

I think there is sometimes nothing better than artistic expression in helping us to learn something new. Ok, maybe you are no Picasso or Beethoven (who is?), but taking some time to learn a new craft or art helps the brain focus in a different way. You can do this by joining local groups, meetups, choirs, orchestras, classes, or maybe this is something you do in the privacy of your own home. When I was at Deloitte I was part of a group called “Sit and Stitch.” A group of  us met about once a month at a local tea shop after work, had tea or dinner and talked while we knit. Some of the group were quite adept, and others of us were just learning. Ok, so maybe knitting isn't what you think of as a fine art, but what it helped to do was focus the brain in a way that involved learning new skills, and different thinking than our day-to-day work. As a bonus, it also led to some really cool conversations and friendships. There are also countless studies out there that show the cognitive and healing benefit that listening to, or playing music, painting, drawing and whatnot can have on your mental health and acuity.

Do something every day that challenges you

You may be familiar with the phrase do something every day that scare s you - but what I think is a better idea is do something every day that challenges you. This can be tackling a tough work project, having a conversation with that person that you really don’t care to, doing something totally different than your normal routine, or trying something new. The point is to make it a habit and to stay hungry.

I've always found in my own life that those people who are the most interesting are those who treat life as one giant schoolroom. The intellectually curious people, who are willing to learn new things, be corrected, and open to new ideas are often incredibly content and have a joie de vivre that makes life worth living.

**Bloggers note: Sorry for the delay in last week's post! I started a new course and didn't realize how much time it would involve. Seems that I've forgotten over the past 10 years just how much work is involved in class!**

Beth Schill is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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