Willing to Learn

The day I started first grade my Dad took me to my favorite store in the town where we lived, Scott's. Scott's was owned and run by a cousin of his, Scott Taggart. Scott's was a stationery store, but that wasn't all they had. The candy counter was world famous, or at least I thought it should be. The store clerk, Libby would fill up a small bag of whatever treats you wanted...Swedish fish, pixie sticks, cherry coins, Sixlets, and my favorite, Smarties. A quarter bought a bag full. But the reason for this trip wasn't the candy counter. The purpose of this excursion was to purchase something that continues to be one of my favorite things to shop for, school supplies.

This first time is still etched in my memory because it was the first time I'd ever needed school supplies of my own. In preschool and kindergarten if you needed paper or something to color or paint with, the teacher had a pile in her tall cabinet by the rest room door. This time I was getting my own, and that was extraordinary.

I had brought home a list from Mrs. Blackner that told my Dad exactly what I needed. I was an early reader so he let me read the list to him while he found what we were looking for.

Number 2 pencils. Check!

Three gum erasers. Check!

One small bottle of Elmer's Glue All. Check!

One wooden ruler with the metal straight edge. Check!

Rubber cement. Check.

Oh my God...a BIG BOX OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS!!! 64!! Every color imaginable!!! To date I had only ever scored the small boxes of Crayolas, 12 or 24; never 64. This was over the top.

But the best was saved for last. A Big Chief writing tablet, with lines and everything! I was so excited to get this that my Dad bought two; one for school, one for home. I had started to learn how to write my name during the summer that had just passed. My Dad was a teacher, so he drew lines on a piece of butcher paper that I had on my easel for me to practice. Having a tablet with the lines already on it was superb.

When we got home, I couldn't wait to start writing. My Dad showed me how to use the pencil sharpener that was hanging next to the telephone on the kitchen wall. Then we sat down at the table and started. He would print a word at the top of the page, and then it was my turn to copy his letters directly underneath, all the way to the bottom of the page. Dad always had impeccable writing, whether printing or longhand. His was so perfect. Mine was misshapen and gross. I got so frustrated, but by the bottom of the page I noticed that my letters were starting to look better.

We practiced until bedtime, and by then I was starting to get the hang of at least a few words. All the -at words; cat, bat, hat, sat, rat. And my name started to look more and more like my name. Something about having the right tools made it fun and easy to learn. I was hooked. I couldn't wait to get back to school the next day.

At what point in my life did I think that I knew everything? It certainly wasn't after high school. I was a horrible student in junior high and high school. My first few years of college were fun, but not especially academic. I took a lot of music classes and drank a lot of beer, but didn't feel like I learned much. Sometime in my twenties I started to believe that I'd learned everything I'd ever need to know, and I got arrogant.

That arrogance led to a horrible series of dead ends. Relationships ended, jobs ended, opportunities vanished, and the biggest reason was that I thought I was smarter than everyone else. In truth I knew very little, but I was too insecure to admit it and just learn.

When I got into my 30s I started to open to the possibility that there was a lot more to learn about life, love, work and myself. I started reading voraciously, and I took classes, not because I needed the credits, but because they were interesting to me, or relevant. I went to workshops, retreats, training seminars, any learning experience I could find. I was thirsty.

As I've gotten older I've seen that willingness to learn has been one of the foundations of any success that I've enjoyed. It's also allowed me to try things and fail, but with the benefit of whatever lesson is buried in the experience. Most days I still feel like that six year old kid just getting his first Big Chief tablet, number 2 pencils, and THE BIG BOX OF CRAYOLA CRAYONS!!! Anything is possible!

In my weekly planning I always include learning something new. Most often that is a skill. Over the past several years I've taken courses and watched youtube,  and I've learned how to use some of the evolving technology. Design software, audio recording equipment, writing classes, book publishing courses, marketing strategies, and most lately video editing. I don't ever want to stop learning.

The results of this learning quest are profound, but I think they're predictable. First, at the very least I'm able to communicate with experts in each of these areas with some understanding of processes and terminology that makes it possible for me to learn even more from them by asking more detailed questions. Second, I've gotten a lot more opportunities only because I have a unique combination of skills. And finally, I've realized that there will always be more to learn. I don't ever have to stop. And, I don't always have to know the answer, or anything for that matter.

My friend David has observed and written a lot about what he calls cluelessness. While in some circles being clueless might be perceived as a weakness, David argues for its place atop the list of personal superpowers. I tend to agree. When I don't know something, I tend to end up in a place of deeper presence, keen awareness, and the willingness to inquire. Of course, that's after I go through a phase of pretending to know something that I don't. This willingness to inquire leads to new vistas, new possibilities, new opportunities.

I'll end with an observation of my own learning process. The first stage tends to be very awkward and anxious. I don't yet have the facility to do things quickly and correctly the first time. There's a lot of trial and error, starting and restarting. The second stage is a high level of frustration and  resistance. I often want to just give up. What I've learned is that the frustration is a sign that I'm getting close to a new level of proficiency. The next phase of learning is integrating my new understanding into the greater body of knowledge that came before. Some things stay, some things go. Other things merge with new things and become something completely different. Just like everything else, learning is a part of our evolution.

With few exceptions my heroes in this life have all been avid learners. They read constantly, and they allow themselves to be influenced by what they learn. They thirst for new ideas, the latest thinking, new discoveries. They tirelessly ask questions, and they don't settle for obvious answers. May we all see the value in doing the same for ourselves.

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