Thursday, May 14, 2009

Why Personal Improvement is as Important as College.

A few days ago, I had a rather interesting conversation over Twitter. There's a small excerpt from it below.


Now, aside from omitting an "and" in my last comment, I started thinking. Recently, there's been a lot going on in my life that has made me think of the words that we use and what they mean. It all goes back to a TED video with Erin McKean titled Redefining the Dictionary. While I could spend quite some time discussing my fascination with words, their orgins, and their meanings, I'd like to focus on the words that we use when talking about learning.

When we think of someone who is an academic, the images that we conjure are often of professors wearing glasses and corduroy jackets with leather patches on the sleeves. We also often think of scientists, doctors, and engineers. The reason these images come about is because of the types of knowledge required for these positions. An engineer is knowledgeable in math, physics, and a number of other fields. Engineers are really the jack-of-all-trades of the professional world. They have their hands in a little bit of everything, hence the development of specific fields within engineering.

These traditional topics of study are the bedrock of modern education. Historically, an education included not only history, science, and mathematics. It also included art, music, and poetry. Etiquette and protocol was a part of regular education for boys and girls alike. Over the course of the past few hundred years, this has fallen by the wayside. Music and art programs are being cut from schools across the country on a regular basis. So what has happened is that the idea of what academic knowledge is has changed over time. Where we're left is with a rather modern association between academics and formal study of math, science, philosophy, and what are often called "higher studies".

To go back to our first reference, Leonardo da Vinci didn't have a whole lot of formal training. He studied painting techniques under a master, but for the most part, his knowledge was acquired on his own. I'm reasonably certain that most people would consider him to be an academic person. This brings us directly to the other term under consideration, scholarly. I want to address this because it's important to understand that acquisition of knowledge doesn't require college. It doesn't require formal training. Both of these things are tools that may be used, but they're not mandatory. Becoming a Modern Renaissance Man doesn't require you to become what most people today would consider to be an academic.

I'll be back to Leonardo in a moment, but let's take a moment to look at the word "scholarly" on it's own. One of the definitions of a scholar is a learned person. It's that simple. A scholar is a person who learns. The english suffix "-ly" generally means "like" or "in the manner of". So we have a root and a suffix. Now it's time for a little word math. Scholarly = Scholar + ly. Scholar = learned person. -ly = in the manner of. So with some substitution, we get Scholarly = (learned person) + (in the manner of). In simpler terms, scholarly simply means "in the manner of a learned person".

When Leonardo wanted to design a flying machine, he studied things that fly. What he did was the essence of scholarly study. A bird knows how to fly, so the way to learn how to fly is to study how a bird does it. To this day, every winged or propellered flying device uses principles that da Vinci learned from watching birds. What this means today is that any specific effort to learn a skill by a method other than simple trial and error is a scholarly effort.

Throughout the years, one of the most common obstacles that I've seen people encounter on their road to personal improvement is the people that they know before the process begins. How to deal with these people is a series of articles in itself. However, of all the insults that they tend to sling, the one I hear most often is that it's not worth your time, you should be focusing on more scholarly endeavors. Really, these are people who are stuck in the traditional work structure of working your ass off forty hours a week for forty or fifty years of your life, only to retire and life in semi-poverty for the last thirty years you're alive. They suggest focusing on work now and fun later. That doesn't sound like a very good life to me.

Set aside the pre-programmed beliefs about the relationship between academic study and personal study as well as those between work and play. Set aside your limiting beliefs, whatever those may be. Personal improvement of any kind is a scholarly endeavor. It is worth your time. Consider it an investment. By investing the time now, and allowing your skills to grow through practice and study, your return will be much greater in the end than if you start that investment in twenty years. To quote Ramit Sethi, "If not now, when?"

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  1. Hmm, so does being a MRM require studying all subjects?

  2. No, but it does require studying a variety of them. Look back to our reference. Leonardo wasn't a priest. He wasn't a fiction writer. There were likewise things that he didn't do as much or as well as others. But he did get his hands dirty in a lot of different soils and did his best at all of them.