Albert Einstein is best known for his outstanding contributions in the field of science. We can admire him for tackling unsolved mysteries in the realm of physics and making discoveries that changed the world, like the theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics. To what does he ascribe his achievements? Einstein humbly summarized the source of his never-ending pursuit of knowledge in this short quote: “I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.”
Echoing the thoughts of Einstein is author Héctor García, who advises us, “Be led by your curiosity, and keep busy by doing things that fill you with meaning and happiness,” His book “Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life” describes what he learned when he visited certain communities in Okinawa known for their above-average number of centenarians. He and his team interviewed these citizens who enjoy long and happy lives. What was their secret? It came down to the usual formula, healthy exercise and diet. They also lived by the ikigai motto: keep busy doing meaningful activities, be socially active, and keep learning. The Japanese word, ikigai, means finding your passion and living it. It’s what gets you out of bed in the morning. For Okinawans, Einstein, and probably most of us, curiosity and passion seem to be the keys to a fulfilled life.
Gaining new knowledge is essential and required for some professions. Doctors and other medical workers, teachers, therapists, engineers, and many more need to regularly update their skills and knowledge in order to keep their jobs. Sometimes, we need more education to qualify for a new career. It’s what we have to do, and it may or may not be enjoyable or meaningful. The term “lifelong learning” has a different emphasis. It refers to a pursuit of knowledge for personal satisfaction and well-being, education that adds a certain zing to our lives. Why do we feel so happy when we learn something new? The joy we feel may have something to do with its effect on the brain.
It’s well known that brain cells are activated when we apply ourselves to discovering new knowledge and developing skills. García, in “Ikigai,” observes how our brains benefit from stimulation: “Presented with new information, the brain creates new connections and is revitalized. This is why it is so important to expose yourself to change, even if stepping outside your comfort zone means feeling a bit of anxiety.”
When we are curious and confident to step outside our comfort zone, the door opens to new adventures. There are so many ways to go about it, especially with the advantages of the internet, which often provides free education. Community colleges and universities have affordable extension courses, especially for retirees. In 2010, I was inspired to supplement my teaching income by pursuing a new career. What got me interested was a sermon in which my pastor spoke about his experience taking a course in positive psychology at San Francisco State University. I signed up for several classes to earn a life coaching certificate. The instructors, class meetings, and homework were far more enjoyable than my French literature classes at St. Lawrence University in the ’70s, mainly because I was learning skills I could actually use to improve my life and help others in the here and now.
Going back to school later on in life gives us choices we didn’t have in the past. For example, we may have regrets about not being able to take some fascinating courses because they weren’t required for our major field of study. Recently, I received a catalog in the mail from The Great Courses (www.BuyGreatCourses.com). It lists affordable online courses, with presentations by award-winning professors on all kinds of topics, including art, history, music, and science. This is just one example of readily available educational opportunities. Some other great resources are podcasts and radio programs now literally in the palm of our hand with smartphones.
Some of us like to expand our knowledge by listening to the experts, and others enjoy developing skills. How many of us aspiring artists, musicians, actors, and writers gave up going deeper with our talent because of time, money, and family constraints? Later on in life, we may find a renewed interest in seeing what we can do, now that we have more time. My sister-in-law supported her daughter’s natural ability in music by purchasing costly piano lessons. It was thrilling for this mom to come home from work and listen to pieces like Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” or Beethoven’s “Für Elise” played so expertly from years of lessons. After retiring, Peggy took lessons from her daughter’s piano teacher, practicing hours every day to develop her skill, experiencing a deep satisfaction and pleasure doing what she always wanted to do. She started with practicing scales and chords, reading simple music, and now she plays all the classical pieces her daughter performed.
We may like to explore and learn on our own, while others prefer companionship. Book clubs are a popular place to socialize and gain knowledge through reading and discussing. New to Colorado, my husband and I and our friends, also from out-of-state, started a book club. The first book we selected was “Centennial” by James A. Michener. We wanted to acquaint ourselves with the history of our new home. After finishing this lengthy historical-fictional account of our state, we planned field trips to some of the historic places described in the book. Our group finds that learning together is very satisfying because it keeps us accountable and committed to growth, and we feel supported in our quest for knowledge.
It may not seem obvious where to start with lifelong learning, with all the readily available information and opportunities. Consequently, we may have to spend some time reflecting on our interests and natural talents before choosing. It might help to discuss this with friends and go after something together. I know one very creative woman who enjoyed crocheting in her childhood and, after retiring, got together with some church friends to start a non-profit called “Strings of the Heart.” The main activity for members, some advanced and others just learning, is to create squares that are sewed together to make blankets for families who are going through hard times. This group of women learned how to set up and manage a non-profit, and they developed knitting, crocheting, and quilting skills as well.
Perhaps Albert Einstein was on to something when he described curiosity as somewhat divine: “The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existence. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day. Never lose a holy curiosity.’’ In fact, we can cultivate the holy aspect of lifelong learning through prayer, meditation, study of scriptures, and service, as a means through which to get in touch with our spiritual energy and capacity for love. These activities not only expand our mind but grow our heart as well. Einstein lauded the inner journey when he said, “Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all humanity and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
It is never too late to learn something new: to embark on a lifelong learning journey with passion and “holy curiosity,” to sail some never-before-explored seas, and discover what happens when we delve into our infinite and divine potential.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.