Every year folks make New Year’s resolutions – some bold, some hopelessly lofty – all well-intentioned. Now, I firmly believe in the New Year’s resolution as an institution. I’ve made plenty, kept some, but even when I’ve failed, I think they served as a good goal and honesty check. I’m not here to poo-poo the custom of New Year’s resolutions, plenty of people have written on that topic already. In fact, that familiar refrain, which clearly resonates to many, suggests that we are collectively changing the meaning of the word itself or at least have eroded its once-implicit gravity. I imagine by 2025, the dictionary will define a resolution as: a well-meaning commitment that is typically made annually, remembered occasionally, and kept infrequently.
January has now turned to February and with it, holiday fervor into ordinary life. No doubt, many reading this have already abandoned, forgotten, or are simply pretending to not remember, the ambitious targets we set in the wee hours of January 1st. But today, as we bow our heads to honor one of the few respected rodents of the modern day, it seems like a good time to take a critical look at ourselves (or at least our shadows).
Woodchucks aside – and yes, a woodchuck is the same thing as a groundhog – the point of this exercise is to offer a few reasonable, effective and attainable educational goals and strategies for the year. Some are far loftier than others, but no doubt at least one of the below could suit any life-long learner…even the really busy ones, like you.
Dig Your Own Grave
Many New Year’s resolutions fail for a very simple reason: they are input-based rather than output-based. For example, instead of committing to running your first 10K, you commit to running five days per week. Now, running regularly is a necessary step in the process, but dwelling on the routine isn’t as enticing to many as focussing on the horizon. Not to mention, as you begin an ambitious training regimen like that, you may not yet understand what really makes sense for your body and schedule – focusing on the finish line has always worked better for me.
Similarly, for education, especially skill-acquisition, setting that distant but attainable goal may be more effective than a daily to-do. For example, are you trying to learn how to build websites or tackle a new computer language? Why not find a school, small non-profit or friend’s business and commit to a small pro-bono project? You can be honest about the fact that you’ll be learning as you go, but chances are, they will still be very pleased someone is willing to help. From your perspective, you’ll be much more likely to keep up your learning as you know have others counting on you. Similarly, having a concrete project, rather than simply a list of lessons and textbooks to read will keep you learning in a hands-on way – at least in terms of programming, this fixation on the doing can lead to a virtuous cycle of constantly reaching beyond one’s comfort zone in order to build bigger and better things, only to then do it again.
Write on Your Nose
When I was in elementary school, I often forgot things. I would do my homework, but sometimes forget to hand it in. Stuff like that. One particular spring, I had forgotten, repeatedly, to get a permission slip for an upcoming field trip signed by my parents. The day before the trip, I forgot yet again. My teacher, visibly annoyed (though not at all surprised) reached into her desk, took out a marker, and drew a small dot on the end of my nose. When I got home, my Mom asked, “Who drew on your nose?” and before I could even throw my teacher under the bus, I whipped out my permission slip to be signed.
Nowadays, we have some very very fancy little machines in our pockets. And, though I sincerely would love to wake one day in a world where people keep there many to-do’s scrawled in marker on their faces, I fear that is unrealistic, even in the dazzlingly optimistic light of Groundhog’s Morn. Luckily, there are some exceptionally effective technologies and communities ready to write on your face for you. (These are not the same communities who will write on your face when you fall asleep at a party. Though, truth be told, that punishment might “learn you good” as well.) There are a few variations, but apps like BeeMinder and Pact allow you to commit to a regular goal – like reading 30 minutes per day or running 15 miles per week – and will remind you to do so. More importantly, you actually GET PAID a dollar or three for hitting your weekly goals! How can they afford to do that? Well, it’s financed by those who don’t hit their goal that week. As one piece of anecdotal evidence, I can testify that my wife has had a long-standing exercise pact for which she has made a few hundred dollars over the past three years and if memory serves, she’s never had to pay into the pot. Of course, we all know that is simply, um, icing on the cake, of remembering to stay healthy, which of course was the real purpose of the pact.
Complete the Web
Education, like most fields comes with its jargon, faddish notions and theories du’ jour. One such term, which pops up as a central unit of Connectivism, among other places, is the learning connection. The precise definition is not agreed upon, but simply put, broad knowledge, skills and understanding do not exist in a vacuum – they are reliant on, and essentially composed of, tiny bits of information (often called nodes) and then the connections between them. In my experience, having more connections can help bolster understanding and will often help with automaticity and memory. These connections, whether within a content area or across seemingly disparate areas, seem to have multiplier effects beyond their own simple route from A to B.
In an effort to create a great deal of new connections, tethered to common areas, I propose a simple Groundhog’s Day Resolution: Look it Up. Everytime. If you are dead set on learning a new technology, whenever you encounter a term, acronym or concept you aren’t familiar with, pause and look it up. You don’t have to get derailed for hours, but learn enough about that unknown element that it can serve as a way-point in your future learning – even if that way point says “hey, this topic isn’t really relevant to what you care about.”
If you aren’t tackling anything technical, you may find that committing to look up every unknown word you stumble upon in literature or unfamiliar cultural reference you find in magazines is more appropriate. If you find this process too jarring or it interrupts the enjoyment you get from reading, keep a short list of things to look up when you put the book down. If that list seems to grow too fast, perhaps just commit to look things up on Tuesdays, or weekends or who knows what. The important thing here is that you will spend time learning things you don’t already know, but are, by definition, connected to the things you have already deemed of interest.
Double Bottom Line Reading List
In business, the concept of a double bottom line is one we hear, but sadly, not often enough. Simply put, it’s the idea of measuring the success of your organization in terms of profitability AND an additional social impact metric. This makes perfect sense for a charter school interested in serving its students AND growing responsibly, or a green business hoping to both save the world and attract funders. In terms of education and New Year’s resolutions, I’ve often heard people proclaim that they intend on reading “for at least 30min per day” or “at least 25 books this year”. These are great aspirations – and may work well for some – but for me, they seem to miss a great opportunity. That is to say, they focus on the blunt emotionless yardstick of minutes or pages and disregard all else.
Personally, I love to read, fiction mostly, but find myself to be a feast or famine reader. At times, I’ll find a book or an author I like and read like crazy…then at other times, my nightstand masquerades as mixed-media celebration of dust and unopened paperbacks. Somehow, for months at a time, I basically forget that reading is one of my favorite pastimes. In order to prevent these lulls, this year, I decided to implement a double bottom line-ish goal of focusing on recent Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winning authors. There are lots of reasons this angle made sense to me, not least of which, I was beginning to accrue a giant chronological gap in my reading. I’d read tons of classics from decades and centuries before I was even alive, but didn’t even recognize the names of the “greatest” authors writing today, from the perspective of our modern world, with all its enormous changes, problems and discoveries.
Secondly – and I admit this one is kind of odd – I tend to like an author so much, John Steinbeck for example, that I am literally now rationing out his books for my own first readings. As in, I am consciously NOT reading Grapes of Wrath, yet, as I still want to be able to ”discover” one of his masterpieces, for the first time, when I am even older and grayer than I am today. (As an avid Kurt Vonnegut fan, I made the “mistake” of reading all of his books by age 20-something. I still re-read them, of course, but must now wait for my impending senility in order to crack a “new” Vonnegut novel.) By taking cues from these award lists, I have already found a few new favorites I can chew on for years to come. If you want some suggestions of exciting places to start this journey, I’d say: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Voices from Chernobyl and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are three sure bets, though all wildly different from each other.
Lastly, many would say the most important factor in keeping up a healthy reading diet is having a book you really like. Try slogging through one you don’t like and you’ll see how slowly your bookmark moves towards the back cover. Now, books don’t often win these awards because they got turned into movies or because the author happens to have a good PR-firm. These award winners are some of the best of the best. Chances are that if you pick a few which seem like a good fit for your reading style, you’ll find them engaging enough to reach for each night, before seeing what’s new on Netflix.
Just to be clear, this is just my strategy for a double purpose reading list, yours might logically focus on a particular academic subject, lifestyle shift, historical era or something totally different, the point is, that the reading you do will add up to something greater than the books as individuals.
The Best Diet is the One You Stick To
Last year, I made a single New Year’s resolution: to play at six open-mic-nights during 2015; I play the guitar and occasionally write a tune for which strangers will clap politely. By the close of 2015, I had failed in my resolution, only having played twice. However, I can still look back at my resolution as a success, or at least a positive step, and here’s why: it set an expectation of growth, which I made sure to fulfill in other meaningful ways.
To give a little backstory, at the start of 2015 I received a wonderful gift of an electronic drum set. It is the most fun “toy” I’ve gotten in years. Almost immediately, the time I spent practicing guitar plummeted by 80% as I spent hours practicing the rudiments of drumming. After a couple months of watching my guitar playing stagnate, I stopped feeling guilty and simply promised myself that the rigor I had mentally allocated to the guitar would be spent, this year, on the drums. I knew I had to make a deal with myself, I couldn’t trade guitar practice for watching TV, that would be cheating, I had to find a suitable replacement. Similarly, in the autumn, I was bitten by the highly addictive bug of Game Design in Unity, and started spending hours and hours building 3D games, at the expense of almost all my musical endeavors. Again, the content had changed, but the commitment to rigor and progress remained intact. Did I hit my initial goal? Nope. I missed by a mile. But, I ended the year being able to play a new instrument (poorly), program in a new language and had almost released my first Unity-based game for Apple TV.
All this to say: pick something from the list above. Or take one of my suggestions as a jumping off point for your own plan of attack. But whatever you do, commit to doing something. If that something changes, fails or proves uninteresting, no big deal. Pick something else. That’s why you have read this far, right? That is what Punxsutawney Phil wants for us all, isn’t it? To see something new and exciting when we turn around and reflect on February 2, 2017.