The world is your intellectual wilderness. You are an explorer traversing foreign terrain, taking with you new information and interests as you would exotic flora or a strange insect. Formal education has nothing to do with it – education and knowledge aren’t necessarily synonymous. Refining how you learn can ensure a lifetime of euphoric discovery. You don’t want to be the bystander in the safari jeep. Get out, get your hands dirty and feel between your fingers the palpable grit of new knowledge.

Refining how you learn can ensure a lifetime of euphoric discovery.

Map Your Route

Devise a plan to avoid going astray. We get overwhelmed, we get distracted – one click onto social media can derail us entirely. Save media for that late afternoon slump, news for morning coffee, poetry for quiet Sunday mornings (but ditch the plan sometimes, for freshness). Creating ritual will give a pleasant rhythm to your learning and your life.

Keep A Field Notebook

A notebook will make you a more attuned and meticulous pupil. Write what you learn, write your thoughts. Write, write, write. The words will build on themselves and begin to shape a narrative of your life. Your ramblings on pre-revolutionary Paris and lists of 60’s rock stars with bad hair will be as much about you as anything else. This means that a notebook won’t just document you, it will, as writer Susan Sontag claimed of her own journal, create you.

Question Everything

Don’t take your truths for granted – understand them for yourself. Noam Chomsky, oft hailed as the greatest thinker alive, says that he was “never aware of any other option but to question everything.” Ask how, ask why. Get your butcher talking about meat, your graphic designer friend about creative process. The important thing is to stay curious. Seek. Ask. Find.

Take Flight

We can’t give equal attention to everything, and so we must choose. Drop a book the minute it bores you or becomes useless. Skip. Skim. A graduate professor once stacked a four-foot swaying tower of books before our class and said, yes this is your reading list, no you can’t humanly read it all, yes you must grasp it all – find a way. Be a mature reader: understand the mechanics of selective learning and when to be flighty.

Dive To the Depths

Breadth is no problem in this age of information: you can read about Henry Miller, check movie times, and get a scone recipe all in one fell swoop. But depth gives knowledge dimension. (You have time for this since you so earnestly took the above advice.) Visit a museum to study one sculpture. Listen to a complete Miles Davis album. Lose yourself for hours in a book as you did in childhood summers. Lose yourself in that wilderness and come out a more astute, more human you.

Image via Mackenzie Rouse



  1. This is a nice, reflective take on the ongoing love, art and rhythm of learning. Mortimer Adler’s “How to Read a Book” is a companion gift for how to bring a spirit of inquiry to anything–reading, writing, thinking, making decisions, acquiring new knowledge. A worthwhile text relevant to The Intellectual and this piece on lifelong learning. Thank you, Margaret

  2. I loved this article, Margaret! The idea of mapping your route is especially pertinent for me; I find myself distracted far too easily, but think the idea of a map would help me keep balance in my various areas of interest. I love your suggestion to question everything as well, because it’s not a suggestion to negatively question, but to deepen our connection to the people around us.

  3. I have a stack of books haunting my bedside. I usually read 4-5 books at a time so I love this advice to “take flight.” Skim, ditch, or engage deeper – words to read by.

  4. Fabulous! I have taken a deeper dive into the knowledge books have to offer as of late. Rather than spending money on classes to gain more information in areas I’ve wanted to for awhile, I have selected a collection of miscellaneous books that have offered juicy insight into different topics that have captured my curiosity recently. This article is a fantastic explanation of that, so lovely!

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