Friday, July 31, 2009

Finding and making the time for self-education

When I picked up War and Peace from a bookstore one winter afternoon as I was leaving college for winter break, all sorts of doubts ran through my head. War and Peace is one of those books that everyone is aware of and respects, but few actually read. As a friend likes to say, it’s a book one would like to “have read.” The book contains over 500 characters and plenty of theoretical digressions about history, war, military strategy, and the dynamics of human life. My edition, the Norton Critical, ran to 1,070 pages.

One of the biggest doubts I had about cracking open War and Peace was the familiar dilemma of time. First: our time on earth is limited and finite - why should we spend it reading monstrously large books? And in a smaller and more practical sense, my vacation was limited and finite - why should I spend it reading War and Peace instead of playing Playstation?

I suspect that everyone runs into similar doubts when they are deciding how to spend their time, and that the eternal dilemma of limited time is one major reason why so few individuals choose to continue reading, studying, and actively learning after their formal schooling is completed. Each of us is “busy” and faced with countless competing demands upon our finite number of hours. Every time we act or do not act, we “spend” time, and spent time can never be recovered. Just as we become poorer each time we hand over cash to a store or restaurant, we become older each time we watch a movie, read a book, or attend a party. Few things are as precious as our time, and it matters how we choose to spend it.

Nevertheless, however, I decided that reading War and Peace would be a worthwhile way to spend the 30-40 hours over the course of 13 days that it took me to finish it. I suspected – rightly, it turns out – that the book would enthrall and entertain me, make me a bit wiser, give me a bit more insight into human life, and share with me the insights of one of the most profound thinkers and beautiful writers who ever lived. These benefits outweighed the “opportunity cost” of forgoing other activities in favor of reading it

We go through this sort of cost-benefit analysis each time we decide how to allocate the hours of our day, and so a crucial step on the road to becoming a self-educator is to recognize the value of learning and to keep that in mind at all times. I find that self-education gives my life meaning and constantly provides me with new lenses through which to view and understand the world. Having made that judgment, it is easier to make the call to read War and Peace instead of doing something more "fun."

I have been speaking in terms of allocating the hours of one’s day and the weeks of one’s vacation, but self-education can also take place on a much smaller scale. We all waste large amounts of our day standing in lines, sitting in waiting rooms, and "zoning out."

But as Barry Farber explains in his How to Learn Any Language - an incredible resource for self-educators, language learners, and language teachers - we can actually put these “hidden moments” to work in the cause of self-education. If you are going on a long walk, bike ride, or drive, try listening to podcasts or audio books instead of your playlist of familiar music. Bring a good book next time you have to sit in a waiting room or wait for a flight.

There are two ways self-educators can change the way they think about their time: First, recognize the value of learning and self-educating, and plan to spend some of your leisure time accordingly. And second, understand that you have more free time than you might suspect, and begin finding ways to put those hidden moments to productive use.