A few months ago I decided to jump on the "learn something new every day" trend. If you didn't realize this is a trend you probably don't have yuppie friends who read a lot of Pualo Coehlo and don those sneakers that look like feet
, stop at Whole Foods for groceries and an olive pressing lesson, take their children to "studios" where drum circles and Zither strum sessions pass for music lessons and then and then return to their gated communities with lawns so chemically treated they have to place toxic hazard signs on them.
There are websites, blogs, Wiki sites, Pinterest groups, page-a-day type calendars, copious books and even organized groups (think: the new book group) devoted to the pursuit of learning something new every day. There are myriad apps for that. I know this because I have friends in the aforementioned demographic and the learn-something-new-every-day trend is their new religion. And like born again zealots, they are enthusiastic and self-righteous in their new-found passion and feel duty bound to tell everyone about the power of their savior and how it's changed their lives.
A couple of my friends were floundering after the dissolution of their book groups. They missed their mommy nights out to
drink wine and complain about their husbands
discuss a book most of them didn't read. Now they have learning groups wherein they
drink wine and complain about their husbands s
hare what they learned each day of the week between meetings. This way, their skills are exponentially increased. 10 people in the group each learning one new skill a day. That's seven skills a week individually, but 70 skills a week when shared among the group. It's a pyramid scheme for learning. Yep, they've turned what's supposed to be an enjoyable self-help contemplative exercise into a more-is-better competition. Based on conversations I've heard about the groups there's a lot of pressure to learn "good" things: unique, impressive skills. My friends make fun of a couple women in their groups who show up with "silly" skills. "I can't believe she didn't know how to..." Seems like there's lot of one-upping and smarter-than-thou going on in these groups. It doesn't sound fun to me.
With or without a group, there are rules, loose rules, but rules nonetheless. Typically you're supposed to learn a skill, not
a piece of trivial knowledge. You're only supposed to devote only 10 - 30 minutes to learning the skill. If learning the skill spawns deeper interest and more advanced knowledge of a skill, the follow-up doesn't count as a new skill. (Making an origami crane is a skill, but then learning how to make an entire origami zoo doesn't count as new skills.) Optimal brain function occurs when you do something that requires using your hands, so while learning how to conjugate a Swedish verb is a skill, it doesn't rank as high as learning how to fold a fitted sheet. The goal is to engage different areas of your brain than you usually use. Which is a worthy pursuit. If you're puritanical about it (and devotees are always puritanical about it) you do not merely dust off or add to an already acquired skill. (If you played clarinet in the school band, dragging out the clarinet and re-learning Twinkle Twinkle Little Start doesn't count as a new skill.)
I formed strong opinions about the learn-something-new-every-day trend while listening to my friends self-righteously extol their new knowledge virtuosity and degrade others who have somehow managed to go through life without learning how to semaphore their name or blanch a tomato. My opinions were unfavorable. Google has turned my friends into boring, nitpicking, pedantic assholes masquerading as elite intelligentsia. Google hasn't made them smarter, it's made them know-it-all assholier. Take away their Google access and they're the same mediocre IQed people they always were. It was bad enough when they were racing to be the first who knows every bit of trivia about everything, pretending they knew it without the aid of Google, but now they're also racing to be the first to know how to tie a four-in-hand knot or open a beer bottle with a cigarette lighter. (the latter cracked me up because the person who learned that skill doesn't drink beer or smoke. Kudos for stepping way outside yourself, but it kind of smacks of desperation for trying to come up with a new skill to learn.) I notice a lot of the skills center on food preparation and crafts. Nothing wrong with that, either, except it's turning my friends into 10 Minute Martha Stewarts. Survival skills are also big. I've learned more about making igloos and escaping crocodiles and bears than a city dweller will ever need to know thanks to my friends' devotion to acquiring new skills.
What gets old for me is the "sharing" aspect of this. Having a laugh over learning some obtuse skill is one thing, one funny thing, but boasting about one's accomplishments, no matter how trivial, is another thing entirely. I'm developing a deeper understanding of why pride is a deadly sin. Even God and Jesus realized how tiring and annoying bragging about one's daily accomplishments is. Yes. This whole thing is turning me Biblical. That's how bad it is.
My friends think their new skills make them more interesting people. They think they are scintillating conversationalists and more fun at parties because of their new skills. And yes, sure, having a couple go-to topics handy at parties is always a good thing. I don't deny that. My parents taught me that when I was a shy kid forced to attend birthday parties. Having a couple topics of conversation at the ready does really help ease the fear of social situations. But. Regaling some poor soul you just met at your cousin's barbecue with details of your newly acquired ability to clean silver with milk and vinegar does not make you the life of the party. Nor does sharing your Skill-A-Day app with them. The only new friends you'll make are people who share your mission of acquiring as many new skills as possible.
Ahhhh. Yes. That's it. I just had an epiphany, or, well, an epiphanette. Acquiring. My friends who are into the new-skill-a-day trend are also big on acquiring things. Houses, clothes, cars, olive oil...the measure their success by what they acquire. Achievement = things. And yes, some of those things are esoteric and worthy: Spouses, children, world travels. But. They're more consumed with
amassing stamps on their passports than actually going places to meet new people and learn about different places. Sure, I love to travel, I'm intrepid and curious and always up for a trip just about anywhere. If one steps outside one's usual realm, travel can broaden the mind. However, you can relax and gain a lot of insight by spending a week in a small town in Minnesota or Kansas or Virgina or wherever you find a place with friendly locals. But if you're American you don't get a stamp on your passport for that. PBS doesn't air travel programs about that. Condé Nast doesn't publish stunning pictorials of that. There are no 5-star, 5-diamond resorts with infinity pools. There aren't TED talks about it. Sometimes there's not even a fast enough wifi connection to upload photos to Instagram. You don't acquire travel cred or an instant endorphin rush digitally bragging about it. It's not about the knowledge or skills they're acquiring, or the pursuit of exercising their brains...it's about acquiring and bragging.
These are people who used to have keen senses of humor and were actually fun at parties because they were interested in other
people and had a firm grasp on reality about themselves. I presume this is the beginning of midlife crises, my friends are feeling desperate to remain relevant. I presume they think they are engaging in life, and sure, they are, but the quest aspect of their pursuit takes the fun out of it. They are tactical and always planning for their next skill lesson. They buy stuff (more acquiring) to inspire, log, track their progress and show off their skills. They buy stuff (more acquiring) to practice their skills.
My outlook is more organic than strategic. Which is the definition of the difference between me and my friends in pretty much every aspect. It's not that I'm some hippie free spirit - hippie free-spirits probably find me uptight. But compared to my tactical, competitive, acquisition frenzied, pompous, "I know everything and I am always right" friends I am one macremé hanging planter away from changing my name to Harmony and living in a commune where my job is tending pottery kiln's coal fire.
Deep down I knew engaging different areas of your brain is a good thing. I am a Girl Scout, and a Girl Scout is nothing if not prepared, and preparation requires skills acquisition. I didn't earn a sash full of merit badges through complacency. (Nerdiness fueled that fire.) And I suspect apart from the acquiring aspect, that's the real undercurrent of my friends' race to amass skills: It's not a lust for knowledge or journey of enlightenment that's driving them to learn new skills, it's a need
for merit badges. The need for proof of achievement.
That's all really sad.
Which is too bad because fundamentally, learning is a great thing. The core principle of pushing yourself to learn new things is solid and not in dispute.
Because I read a lot and have lived alone for most of my adult life and have relied on myself for fixing and dealing with every aspect of life, I thought I was engaging in quite a bit of thinking outside my own thoughts and acquiring new skills just by, you know, living
. Plus, I'm curious by nature, and poor, so the combination yields a lot of pushing up of my sleeves and figuring out stuff out of necessity. Life
is a learning process for me. I don't find that boast or praise worthy.
When I was a kid, the Girl Scout merit badges were an incidental result of my interest in performing the tasks required to earn them. I was given a handbook filled with fun ideas about how to learn stuff. My parents, troop leader and camp counselors checked off tasks as I accomplished them, and eventually merit badges were given to me. Other girls were mission-bent on acquiring badges for the sake of the badges, strategically going through each step of each badge like a recipe. I took a more haphazard approach, meandering around tasks from badge to badge. My first year of Girl Scouts I only acquired three badges. My sash looked lame compared to some of the more competitive girls. However, my handbook told a much different story than my badge sash. Almost every merit badge check list in my Girl Scout Handbook had at least two tasks completed and signed off by an adult. Many of the badges were close to completion, even the obscure and weird ones. I was hopscotching around the badges as my life, whims and interests took me, not as a strategic, task-by-task, badge-by-badge assault on the Girl Scout Handbook. By the end of my second year of Girl Scouts my badge sash far outnumbered the other girls' sashes. That really pissed off some of my troopmates. I suppose I was a dark horse in their race to acquire the most merit badges.
A couple of the badges were such a part of my life and interests that I earned twice or three times the required credentials. That's one of the points of merit badges. They're supposed to inspire girls to try new things and in the pursuit they discover talents and interests. Girls become more well-rounded and civic-minded human beings as a result of accomplishing tasks set forth in the badge guidelines. I struggled to even accomplish a few tasks on some of the badges in the book. There is a noticeable absence of cooking-related badges on my art and writing heavy badge sash. But, I did attempt some of the tasks on every badge. I tried. I made efforts. But not enough to earn a badge. I sometimes wished there were more badges for topics that interested me, more in-depth badges to build upon the ones I already earned. That's the way the Girl Scout cookie crumbles. A few other girls had the same issue: One girl took ballet and dance lessons and she rocked through the dance merit badge in a matter of weeks. She thought it was not fair that she didn't get additional dance merit badges every time she worked her way through the requirement list. She would have ended up with several of the same dance badge, and she thought she should get several of them. Apparently she envisioned a sash full of the same dance merit badge. There are valuable life lessons in that: Push your boundaries. Try new things. Don't be a one trick pony. The pursuit or journey is its own reward. Joy and knowledge are their own rewards. You don't get extra credit for doing the things you've already mastered, or that you're supposed
to do. And. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.
I finally decided that maybe there's something to the skill-a-day trend, maybe the tired cliché isn't tired. The theory behind the trend is solid, it's just the overzealous practitioners who are giving it a bad rap. This occurred to me when I Googled, "How does one effectively deal with a pedantic, pompous, self-righteous know-it-all?" and the results numbered in the hundreds of thousands, many of which were skill-a-day type instruction sites.
A friend, insisting the skill-a-day pursuit is the answer to all my problems, gave me a special skill-a-day journal for my birthday. It has an app that goes with it. Of course it does. It sat under my desk, collecting dust in the gift bag it came in, for several months. I decided to make note of the things I learned on a daily basis, things I learned as life presented them to me, not because I was on a mission to learn something new solely to learn something new.
I'm more liberal with the rules.
Dusting off old skills counts, as does building on a newly acquired skill. I was visiting my mother and dug out my old clarinet. Occasionally (once every 3 - 5 years) I pull out my oboe to see if I can still squeak out a few notes, but my clarinet has been sitting dormant in the back of my girlhood closet since college. It took several attempts, but eventually I squeaked out a tune. I found the score for Green Day's Boulevard of Broken Dreams and I am not so proud to admit that four weeks later I can almost play it on my old clarinet. It's Green Day like you never imagined. I find it hilarious.
It doesn't have to be a motor skill. I'm learning a Norwegian word a day. I do this sometimes anyway, every now and then I think something like, "Hmmmmm, sock. I wonder how you say sock in Norwegian." And I look it up. (Sokk) Now I'm just making a more concerted effort to do it every day. Ditto ASL. In Girl Scouts we learned the alphabet and several words in sign language. We did a joint project with a troop from the school for the deaf. I felt really sorry for those girls who couldn't hear music. I still do. That experience has stuck with me throughout my life. But I learned that many of the signs for words are really creative and there's a joy of expression in signing. For instance, to sign seahorse you can sign sea (hands waving up and down pantomiming a choppy sea) and horse (hand up to the side of your head two forefingers moving up and down), or, spell it out.
My budget is tight, really tight, and I can't afford much in the way of food. But it's farmers' market season and if you show up near closing time you can haggle your way into low cost produce, especially the weird stuff no one else bought. Consequently I learn to cook with foods outside my usual realm. I recently learned how to select a healthy jicama, for instance.
See what I mean? Boring. Boring. Boring. Crashing bore. It's interesting to me
because I'm a curious dork, but I would never expect anyone else to care about my funny clarinet sonatas or foray into inexpensive root vegetables. Sure, learning is good. Curiosity is good. There's expansive virtue in trying new things. But it's a personal pursuit, not something should (or want to) share with anyone else. I don't need (or want) a sash full of merit badges to prove my worthiness.
I dunno. Maybe I have it all wrong, maybe talking about achievements (if you can call them that) garners something more from the pursuit, takes it to another level. Maybe sharing my knowledge leads to deeper fulfillment. I kinda doubt it. I don't feel more fulfilled knowing that other people now know that I am teaching myself how to play Boulevard of Broken Dreams on my school band clarinet. I don't feel embarrassed that other people know this about me (I suspect I should
), but I don't feel more fulfilled. And acquiring the knowledge doesn't make me feel better about myself, either. Let's be realistic. Learning stupid stuff isn't going to boost my confidence. So what if I can squeak out a few notes on a clarinet? Unless I visit Norway and need to communicate about socks, who cares if I know a few words in Norwegian? Or that I can sign a few words in ASL? Or that I can select a healthy jicama? These are whims, diversions, itches I scratched, things I learned about life on earth at best, stupid human tricks at worst, and they're not the sort of thing that boosts confidence or morale.
That's what I've learned thus far, anyway. Maybe once I have a few more months of noting what I learned each day under my belt I'll feel differently. So far, it's just status quo for me.