… begins when you leave behind your will to pursue your personal fascination.
The cost ~ only your Bliss!
Beginning with books
I still remember some of the books I read before I was ten years old …
The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
The Voyage of the “Beagle” by Charles Darwin and Millicent E. Selsam
and of course … the Boy Scout Handbook, as well as many others.
I remember reading for as long as I can remember. Of all the things my parents did for their children filling the house with books and a love of reading was among their greatest gifts to us.
While we weren’t particularly wealthy or even well off, we were comfortable. My dad was a steadily employed blue collar, middle class worker … a carpenter by trade. He worked for a division of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and on occasion did some extra work on weekends to supplement his income as well. But I can’t remember ever being told I couldn’t have a book I wanted.
In addition to the books in our home my mother was a fan of encyclopedias, and I remember the encyclopedia salesman coming to our house one day and selling my family a set of World Book Encyclopedias. This set became a staple of my research for many school projects and papers throughout my elementary school years. The set also continued to grow with each edition of the Year Books. Over the years my mother also added specialty encyclopedias on space exploration, animals, geography and even a set of The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau encyclopedia. So information overload isn’t something new to me by any means.
Even with all the books and encyclopedias we had in the house I was a frequent library rat, spending hours perusing the shelves of books there. I was really fortunate to attend a school from Kindergarten to 8th grade that had a library annex housed at the school. We had regular library classes all through my school years, where we learned how to use the lib ray, including the card catalog (only some of you who are old enough will actually remember using card catalogs I’m betting … or maybe even a library for that matter!). We also learned how to do research, find and request books that weren’t available on the shelves of the small library at our school, and we had the opportunity to check out books during these classes as well.
By about the fifth grade I had read every book in the children’s section I was interested in and got special dispensation to move into the adult stacks, with the caveat that I couldn’t check out any books with “adult” themes … but the rest of the library was now available to me. The first thing I remember reading was a book by Shunryu Suzuki, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” because I was interested in Karate and Kung Fu … remember this was around the time of Bruce Lee and the Green Hornet. Just after that came “Kung Fu” with David Carradine too that started airing when I was 13. That was the perfect age to be completely entranced by Kwai Chang Caine … and I was as hooked on martial arts as any other red blooded American boy could be at that time.
So here I was about to enter high school with books leading the way …
I went to a semi-elite catholic college preparatory high school and started what was then still a classical college prep curriculum … four years of history, math, science, foreign language, classical studies (including religion and philosophy), social studies and history, english literature and language studies … you get the idea I’m sure. In high school every year we had a book sale and in my Freshman year I picked up a copy of a book by W.D. Norwood called, “The Judoka” … it proved to be a life shaping book for me … and I’ve read it a dozen time since then.
However, what I also found out was that I could read books that were just above my punching level and still make sense of them. It was during those years, impelled by my classical studies teacher that I read Homer and Virgil, and then went onto read other classics on my own like Dante’s trilogy. I also became fascinated with science during that time and began reading deeply there as well … and I’d been reading as much philosophy as I could get my hands on since I first read Suzuki, both Oriental and Western philosophy. By the time I graduated high school I had a substantial canon of great works under my belt, as well as some pretty substantial science and literature. By the end of my high school career I was also beginning to read and study mathematics and logic on my own as well.
One of the downsides of all this reading was that college classes were utterly boring to me for the most part, and I skipped far more than I attended. The end result of that was a doomed college career that ended pretty much before it started. The upside was I had much more time to read what interested me … a pursuit I engaged in vigorously, some might even say with abandon.
The first twenty years … and the following thirty …
Well … if I were to sum up the first twenty years of my intellectual journey I’d have to say it was all about consumption. I was taught and learned to be a consumer of information (a practice that I continue, sometimes feverishly, through today). That all came to a screeching halt for me as I attempted to “do” college. The insistence that I spend another four plus years consuming more information was beyond me. I had mega dosed on information and needed to move beyond inputing to outputting, but the challenge was no one had taught me how to do that other than to simply regurgitate what I’d consumed cramming for tests, like an information bulimic.
What I wanted … nay, needed … was a means to digest the information, assimilate it thoroughly and create something anew. So upon leaving the grand institution of higher education I began a different journey outside of those hallowed halls. I began to pursue the integration and innovation of knowledge, far better for my psyche than the mere accumulation thereof. I learned many lessons along the way … one being that it’s a harder task to leave behind the information you’ve consumed to create something new from it, than it is to repeat it upon command like a favorite pupil of some tenured professor … or maybe better put the lapdog of the same.
I also learned that there’s a price to be paid for NOT SPEWING FORTH ACCUMULATED INFORMATION UPON COMMAND IN FAVOR OF CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO OF THE INFORMATION KEEPERS. Specifically, I learned that the ability to document that you’ve attended the requisite classes, passed the requisite tests and bear the imprimatur of the institution where you paid your dues is more significant that possessing the knowledge or skills declared by such imprimatur.
For the last thirty years I’ve continued to seek my own way, deepen my knowledge and skills, integrate and innovate upon the information I’ve consumed … and pay the price of not prostrating myself before the alter of higher education. In these past thirty years I moved beyond being a mere consumer of information to a developer, designer and architect of information … making output more critical in my learning strategy than input. I even committed myself to earning a doctorate and writing the requisite dissertation to document the research I completed along the way.
While the price has been high, flaunting my lack of pandering to the popular notion of education as documented by the receipt of parchment alone … the payoff has been equally high.
Keeping the Status Quo
If the achievement of pandering to the social and political pressure to document ones knowledge, skills and expertise by attaining certification from an “accredited” institution is possessing the paperwork to prove it, the achievement of not pandering to the professorial elite is possessing the resiliency to pursue what cannot be documented by others because you choose to blaze a trail not yet broken.
Make no mistake about it by the way, the pressure to attain the documentation of institutional certification is well regulated and overseen by the political establishment, virtually guaranteeing that only those submitting to the conformity of consensus will ever be allowed to practice their chosen arts. The exceptions to this rule are extraordinary if you do the math. The most concrete examples are the statistics following the success of those who possess sheepskin versus those who do not … the evidence is overwhelming that if you submit to the mind numbing experience of the classroom you will be marginally better off than your peers.
I put forth that the reason for this prejudice against those who are self taught and self made is both social and political.
Beware the professionals! First there is the protectionism of the tribe of the defeated. Those who have endured the hazing of higher education do not want the doors to their private clubhouse swung wide open to the riffraff who would seek to join them if they didn’t erect the barriers of entry. They live in abject terror of having their sacred protected territory taken from them by those who merely possess extraordinary capability, skill and expertise, but lack the proper documentation. In an every widening gyre they seek to sweep to themselves a greater share of the pie they perceive to be their unique purvey to possess.
Next, you have the money these professionals gain by protecting their turf so studiously that is then poured into the political arena, e.g.: AAJ, the American Associate for Justice (formerly the Association of Trail Lawyers of America). This tribe, the AAJ, has over fifty thousand members who contribute over five million dollars a year to political campaigns in the U.S. individually, in PACs and as soft money. In addition they spend an additional 3+ million dollars lobbying politicians each year to further their professional ambitions and protections. This kind of financial juggernaut creates a political wall that’s virtually impossible to circumvent. By example while campaigning for President, Barack Obama made clear that the favored tort legislation of the AAJ would not even be a topic of discussion if he were to be elected. As a result trial attorneys remain one of the most well compensated professions in the United States, with many of the tribe becoming deca and centi millionaires. The cost to the average American, untold ..
In the United States of America, like in so many of the first world countries around the globe, the politicians are in the pockets of the wealthiest members of the societies they supposedly represent … and as a courtesy to their patrons they keep the gates of opportunity open enough to create the illusion of entry, but closed beyond that to all but the privileged few. One of the “tricks” of this crowd is to promote the c0-illusion of the “equality of education” both in terms of access to education and the myth that an education creates equality economically and socially … nothing could be further from the truth. Education creates compliance first and foremost. While this conclusion is not something I cooked up on my own, I agree with it wholeheartedly.
It takes a rare and unique individual to overcome the indoctrination of education, or to fail to be indoctrinated by education in the first place … and those who escape this fate will pay a price, like Ulysses paid for his hubris against the gods … forced sometimes for decades before they can claim a place to rest their weary bones.
The Way Out …
Despite what may so far appear to be a demoralizing tale of education there is both an upside and a way out. First the upside …
Those early years of education are actually quite crucial to become a self-directed learner (the way out by the way …). The trick is not getting caught by the system while you’re learning the essentials. Yes, you know what they are ...the three Rs, reading, writing and (a)’rithmetic. However I’d add in three more, the three Ms … movement … music … and making, in school these three become physical education, dance and sports … music … and fine and practical arts.
If you can gain the skills without losing your soul you can find the egress from education (the key is escaping formal education … not self-education, which is the key to succeeding beyond the limits the system inscribes). The treasure to be mined with these skills in found in both books (more on that in a moment) … and now via the world wide web (or the Internet if you prefer), but there’s a caveat … you must learn to “punch above your weight”
Punching above one’s weight: Meaning: Competing against someone who you are no match for. Origin: The different classes of contestants in boxing matches are distinguish by the weight of the competing boxers – heavyweight, middleweight, lightweight, flyweight etc. The sport is regulated so that only boxers of the same weight fight each other. Someone from a lighter weight wouldn’t be expected to have much chance if ‘punching above his weight’ against a heavier fighter. The term is often used figuratively in situations where someone finds themselves competing outside their usual class; for example, the Irish comedian Graham Norton described that, since becoming well-known, he was able to attract better-looking partners than previously and that he was ‘punching above my weight’ when it comes to relationships. – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/290900.html
When it comes to self-education punching above your weight means learning to read and benefit from books and material you have no right to expect to understand. Whilst anyone can learn to do this it requires a commitment and dedication to achieve.
Recently I ran a program in California where the group asked me to teach them how to read much faster (up to three times faster in about two hours, and up to 4000 words a minute after some diligent training). However, reading faster is not the same as reading better … and it’s reading better that makes a bigger difference!
To read better you have to learn how to extract the information you encounter … AND you have to learn how to interpret the information so you can apply it yourself.
One of the keys to reading better is learning to contextualize the information. This means learning about the author of the information. learning about the audience the author intended the information for, learning abut the purpose the information was intended to serve … and learning about both the sources and the subsequent extensions of the information authored. When you know how information was developed and aimed you’ll be better able to incorporate it for yourself.
I want to share with you a seven step “Secret Code” about how to read a book and learn the most you can from it that I’ve been using for years …
You must leave your learning about learning behind …
In order to become and succeed as a self-directed learner and independent scholar you must stop trying to impress the teacher. This is not about being about to regurgitate what you read … the standard learning protocols of memorizing the dates, names and places is irrelevant. Instead of consuming and absorbing facts and figures, focus on digesting and assimilating concepts. Put your attention on mining for ideas and finding the critical notions the author is building. The key question to ask yourself at this point is, “How is this information relevant?”
Start with the knowledge you’re seeking to gain …
Read everything you can about the book in the book before you read the book. Read the table of contents (yes, “read” the table of contents – familiarize yourself with the chapter headings and the way the author has sequenced the material in the book before you begin reading it), read the forward and preface if they exist (these two elements of a book will outline what someone familiar with the author and their work think about what the author has written, and what the author or maybe an editor thinks about the material in the book – this will put you into the right contextual frame before you even begin accessing the content of the book), read the back cover and the inside flaps if they have copy (this is the place the author and publisher create what they think will draw in readers and what they think the book is mostly about on a practical level), read the author’s bio (this is essential contextual material to further set the frame for reading the book), and make sure to read the epilogue if there is one (this is a real trick to getting the essence of the book out of it … because you know where the book is heading before you read it, as you read it more of it will make sense to you along the way). By the time you get done doing this preliminary reading you’ll feel like the book your about to read is an old friend.
Let others lead the way …
Before you dive into the book contents proper go and read all the reviews you can get your hands on (or that you can stand if there are just too many). You want to get a sense of what others think about the book and what it has to offer to set the proper context for you to extract the most from the book you’re about to read. Reviews … especially those with spoilers, lists and those pros and cons outlines that have become so popular in some places … are hugely helpful in gaining a sense of the material you’re about to delve into yourself. If you’re lucky you’ll come across some reviews that will compare the book you’re about to read with others in it’s genre and/or others by the same author … this will place the book in deep context for you. If you are up to it take this one step further and do an online search for the book and the author and see what you can find out about them from whatever sources show up, e.g.: Wikipedia. When you read reviews and such compare them to one another to see where the commonalities and contrasts are between the comments. Armed in this way you’ll free up enormous amounts of cognitive energy worrying about “getting it” that will become available to you to decide what you agree and disagree with yourself, parsing out the meaning from your own point of view and most significantly determining if you want to make the investment to finish it once you’ve begun it (or possibly even before that …).
Make it your own …
In my opinion this may be the most important step of them all. WHILE YOU’RE READING A BOOK MARK IT UP! Literally put your notes about the book in the book next to the information you’ve read that inspired your own thinking. Keeping your books pristine is perfect if you’re a lending library, but as a private owner make the books you own your own … MARK THEM UP!!! If you come across something you want to get back to again fold the corner of the page … I love my dogeared books. If you see something worth remembering highlight it. If you have a way of making sense of something the author writes other than via their words feel free to write your own words next to theirs. If you are reminded of something from somewhere else put it in the margin as a reference to what you’ve just read. You’ll really feel like you own the book when you’ve contributed a substantial amount of writing to the author’s in the margins.
NOTE: FWIW I love e-book readers for this reason, e.g.: Kindle, Nook, Kobo … because they let me mark up by books with ease. I highlight, I add notes … I can source external information while I’m reading via hyperlinks and built in tools like dictionaries hearing the pronunciation of words that might be unfamiliar to me. I can even access my highlights and notes separate from the book itself with some readers, e.g.: Kindle, and if I want to print them out as a study file, I may even have the facility to share my highlights and notes with others, or engage in discussions around the book in social forums supported by the e-book technology, e.g.: Kobo VOX social reading technology.
This one is simple and easy … but you have to make the commitment to do it. Once you’ve read the book AND MARKED IT UP go back and first re-read your highlights and notes. Then add to them as you see fit. As you’re doing that copy your notes out to a suitable medium, e.g.: index cards, a digital notebook (Evernote is my current favorite for this) … whatever, as long as you can sort the information into categories (or tag it in a digital medium to access via search later on). You want to be able to re-access your information at a moments notice later on without re-reading the entire book. If you do this diligently you’ll find that in a short period of time you’ll have a true scholars cabinet of notes you can use for any number of purposes, e.g.: research, writing, preparing for a speech … refreshing your memory while your reading another book … winning arguments … . Finally, after about three weeks of letting the book sit, re-read it quickly again, even just scanning it and allowing yourself the freedom to only read word for word those sections that catch your attention. After you do this the contents of the book will be yours to keep.
Extending the journey …
Here’s where it begins to get really interesting …
After you finish the book that was “above your punching weight” when you began you’ll be ready to read another book or two of the same, or even a higher level, within that category. This is a “trick” that every serious independent learner I know uses. They literally use the first book in a category to prepare themselves for further reading, research and study. Depending on their intention, e.g.: familiarity with a topic or mastery of the topic, they take the journey as far as they need/want to … but I don’t know anyone, including yours truly, who stops at the first book and leaves it there if they care about the topic at all. Most independent scholars I know and virtually every expert I can think of, buy many, many books within a topical area of interest, often all at the same time, amassing a large collection of books that will give them a depth of knowledge almost equal to the authors who wrote the books they’re reading. However, I’ll keep it simple … make a commitment to read at least one additional book the author recommends or uses as a primary source (they will share this information in their bibliography, and sometimes in the text as well).
Okay, now you’ve done the requisite homework and you’re ready to step beyond the learning phase to the action phase. Find some way to apply the material from the books you read as soon as possible after you read them. If you can use the material personally or professionally do that, if you can join in a conversation or dialogue about the material do that, if you can write about the book and what you got from it do that (you can always write a review in one of the online bookstores or review sites), if you want write a blog post about the book and it’s contents.Regardless of how you take the words from the page and make them real find a way … do something applied with the contents beyond “having read the book” and you’ll be building one of the most powerful habits you can possibly have as an independent learner and scholar. The purpose of all this work you’ve put in is for you to have a better life … the real magic is becoming truly free of the habituated idea that you have to learn from teachers or experts … and making the information practical, pragmatic and/or applicable in your life will make it all worthwhile.
When you’ve taken your first book and applied these seven steps of the “Secret Code” I’ve outlined above you’ll never be outclassed or out punched when it comes to learning again …
Joseph Riggio, Ph.D.
Princeton, New Jersey