Would you like this cake?

CupcakeWhen two different people independently talk to you on the same topic, and you’re alert enough to notice how that feels, then the universe is trying to tell you something. Both Luke Beahan and Pippa Evans have been telling me recently about courses they have signed up to that were only tangentially related to their principal calling. I used to do this more often than I do now, but possibly for the wrong reasons. Last year I did classes in puppetry, clowning, and ballroom dancing. I need to do more this year.

Learning a totally new thing expands the mind and is always a good thing for almost every reason. But I think it’s important to distinguish between learning skills and learning about them. It is the thrill of learning about a new skill that provides that mind-stretching sensation around the temples. That’s partly what you pay for.

Yet you could take all sorts of classes and courses until the cows come home and never properly learn anything. Be wary of classes that promise in their blurb that you will come away with a new skill in your pocket. The best thing that classes give you is a sense of what is possible, and how to go about teaching it to yourself. It’s only when you drill a new-found skill until it becomes built into your memory, that you learn it. Not until you can apply it unconsciously, without thinking, will you you have mastered it. So the conscious delight at learning about a new skill – which is like being given a tasty cake to eat – can be contrasted with the unconscious process of perfecting it – which is a matter of digesting it.

I described this theory to Roderick Millar the other day, and he proposed a third stage of learning that comes in between ‘discovery’ and ‘internalizing’: ‘understanding’. That is the specific moment when you ‘get’ what you have been taught, and know what to do with it, but before it becomes automatic. I really like that idea. For the purposes of my cake metaphor: this is ‘swallowing’. Sometimes it can take a long time – weeks or months – to chew over a new skill before it is even possible for you to start integrating it into your system. On other occasions – nom! – in it goes.

Get it? If not, chew over it a bit more. Or, if you don’t like it, spit it out. Bleurgh!

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