Two kinds of learning:
- seeking out answers to defined problems and
- seeking out answers to questions you don’t even know yet.
The latter is the most difficult and oft the most rewarding. It can only be achieved by adopting certain behaviors; honesty, humility, and creativity.
A fortunate life is full of encounters with people that have something to teach. Whether the teacher is older, more experienced, intimately familiar with a topic that concerns you, or wiser due to some combination of their own life circumstances, most of us engage with these teachers on a regular basis.
Teachers are quite valuable when you present them with a specific problem and take the time to listen carefully with the intention of applying their teaching to a specific problem in your life.
But there is a vast ocean of learning that goes untapped when teachers are only engaged on the basis of a specific problem.
The stupid yet successful college student
Consider a college student who somehow acquires the exact questions that will appear on their tests for the duration of a semester-long class.
The following months will consist of a myopic search for answers relating only the questions they already know. Every word out of the professor’s mouth will be filtered through the list of questions to which the student is searching for specific answers.
Any content that does not directly relate to one of the questions they possess will be dismissed.
This student will conclude their course with a score of 100/100 according to the explicit examination of knowledge. Yet, this student is leaving their engagement with a teacher barely any better off than when they first began the engagement.
They have missed the point while simultaneously nailing the exams.
They are successful in their aim and yet, in the end, are left stupid.
Learn outside the box, for god’s sake
If the process of learning and acquiring knowledge is carried out in a structured manner, the desired answers will undoubtedly be discovered by the learning individual (eventually).
But what about all of the questions and accompanying answers that you don’t even know you need to ask?
What about the pieces of wisdom and knowledge that you can only stumble upon and yet frequently define the most transformational periods in a life?
Learning by accident on purpose
Every individual that engages with the world will eventually find themselves sitting with or walking next to someone smarter than them. Much of the time there will be a particular reason for the meeting and all parties will leave feeling satisfied with the productivity of the engagement.
But, more often than you might suspect, you will find yourself walking next to someone who could teach you something invaluable if only you knew the right questions to ask.
This is where the adoption of certain behaviors — honesty, humility, patience, and creativity — comes into play.
Through honesty, humility, and creativity, you can learn by accident on purpose.
It is very hard to get to important areas of a conversation when you avoid honest participation.
Every time you mislead the teacher in a given engagement, you drive the contents of the conversation further and further away from what is valuable to both you and the teacher. That’s just a waste of time for everyone.
We often avoid being honest in order to protect ourselves.
“If I can avoid all things personal, revealing, real, or potentially compromising, I can avoid any potential judgment, misunderstanding, and discomfort.”
Yeah, and you can also kiss goodbye any meaningful lessons to be learned.
The first step to learning by accident on purpose is to adopt a degree of honesty that may frighten you (that’s a good sign).
Once you are honest in conversation you are going to feel vulnerable. Once that vulnerability hits you are going to feel an urge to protect yourself even if it means ignoring instances when the teacher points out cracks in your previously-assumed-to-be-flawless armor.
Don’t dismiss or evade things that may hurt to hear.
Cling to your intentional humility, close your damn mouth and chant internally “what doesn’t kill me makes me so much stronger.” In this instance, when engaging with someone who invariably has something of value to teach you (quite possibly many things to teach you), what doesn’t kill you will always make you stronger.
And did I mention that you must shut up? Shut your mouth.
Don’t come to your own defense in the case of a teacher touching a sensitive topic.
Listen with your mouth shut and your mind open.
The second step to learning by accident on purpose is to shut your mouth and listen wholeheartedly even when your pride screams for you to speak up vainly in its defense.
Not everything is going to be served up on a silver platter ready for your seamless consumption and application. A conversation with a teacher may be segmented, difficult to fully grasp, or contain elements that are seemingly irrelevant to your own life.
Such is life and the diverse experiences that surround us.
Going about life accepting only things that are simplified and served perfectly to your taste will leave you starving and fractionally fulfilled.
Instead, wrestle with what is being put on the table, tackle it from multiple angles, jam it into other things you understand and see what comes out the other end. Throw things back at the teacher with a personal spin to them and see how they react. Gather bits and pieces and attempt to form a whole picture, even if it is a seemingly ugly one.
Once you are honest enough with a teacher for the topics of conversation to become pertinent, humble enough to let them transform into meaningful yet possibly painful points, creativity becomes paramount to putting the emerging yet often hard to understand pieces together.
The third step to learning by accident on purpose is to accept the disparate pieces of wisdom shared by a teacher and piece together the knowledge shared in creative and flexible ways until something of more obvious value manifests.
You are free to choose.
Put the blinders on and learn only what is most easily grasped.
Or, adopt an honest, humble, and creative perspective and watch the world expand before you.