Friday, 27 May 2016

Learning to learn again

Last week, Tom Hanks made his debut appearance on Desert Island Discs. As Kirsty Young's latest castaway, he was as charming as you'd expect, and pretty moving, too; at one point, he had to pause to collect himself as he talked about the impact of hearing one of his song choices as a teenager, after a pretty nomadic and lonely childhood. “This was the ‘wow’ moment of my life", he told her. "Going from a kid trying to figure out what’s interesting in this life, to a young man yearning to be an artist."
But one of the parts that really stuck out to me from his time spent as a castaway was actually when he discussed his love of learning, telling Kirsty (in what I'm sure you'll agree was a particularly enjoyable turn of phrase): "I chewed up school like a delicious meal." Like pretty much every teenager that's ever lived, when I was at school myself, I was concerned with being considered – however elusive a concept it might be – as 'cool'. But try as I might, I was neverreally going to achieve this lofty status, because just like Tom and unlike most truly cool kids, I bloody loved school.

Don't get me wrong; I don't subscribe to that phrase you sometimes hear about your time spent at school being "the best years of your life" (a pretty depressing thought if ever there was one). But for someone who loves learning, it was a pretty great place to be. I never really knew what I wanted to be; I didn't have a sensible game plan to become a doctor – although my disastrous effect on science experiments would have soon put a stop to that – and much as I loved drama, I never felt, like Tom, that acting was my calling. So learning was always really just for the sake of learning, rather than with any real ambitions in mind.

It's pretty excruciating whenever you're asked in a job interview to describe yourself in three words, but if a gun was held to my head, one I'd probably use for myself is 'curious'. And it's this I think that's spawned my love for learning. I just love reading and listening and observing and exploring. And I also happen to be incredibly nosy, which, contrary to popular belief, I think is actually a pretty great quality. If you're nosy, you never tire of learning new things, of hearing other people's stories and thinking about things other than yourself (which, for someone writing a personal essay right now, is a bit rich I know). I'm also a massive know it all, which while incredibly annoying for other people, is pretty useful for the whole learning thing.

However. Once I'd left the school cocoon for uni, things took a bit of a different turn. I think I developed learning fatigue, at probably one of the worst possible times to develop it. When I had some of the cleverest people in the country at my beck and call, ready and willing to have a chat with me about Derrida's theory of deconstruction or finally clear up what the fuss is actually all about with Dickens, I couldn't think of anything worse. There was a huge library full of thousands of expensive books, endless clubs and societies to join, lectures and seminars to be attended, and I was mostly more interested in working my way through York's impressive selection of brunch spots and watching the entire run of Grey's Anatomy in the space of a few weeks. My curiosity to learn new things had transferred to seeing how fast I could reach the bottom of a bottle of Glenn's, as opposed to how many literary theories I could learn. Instead of turning to my professors for help in understanding Shakespeare, I turned to Sparknotes.

By the time graduation rolled around, the thought of doing a masters filled me with horror. I was sick of reading lists, of being told to read obscure Medieval texts and get up for 9am lectures (ha! how naive I was). There's a part of me that doesn't regret it too much; realistically, those three years were the last chance I probably had to treat the passing of time and the workings of my brain with such reckless abandon. But I do still feel like I have a bit of catching up to do.

Luckily, since leaving uni, it seems I've got my love of learning back. Maybe it's because the time you have to do so as someone who works a 9 to 5 is limited, but now, instead of seeing it as a compulsory slog, I love finishing off a book before reaching for a new one, and using those hours snatched outside of my office to listen to podcasts and radio shows or read the news. Sometimes I get overwhelmed just thinking about the number of  books there are in the world, and how many I still have to read. 

My teenage self would be disgusted at the levels of uncool: I keep lists on my phone of TV shows I need to catch up on, documentaries that need watching, novels new and old that need reading. I'm also lucky to live in London, which for someone who loves learning, is a gift in itself. Whether it's a retrospective of the Rolling Stones or just reading one of those blue plaques you occasionally find on buildings, there's something new to be discovered every single day of the week, if you take the time to look.

Admittedly, it's not like I'm using my every non-working hour for learning purposes. Unless of course you count watching Keeping Up with the Kardashians and trips to the pub as brain food. And sadly, I'm still looking at a pathetic PB of about five correct answers on University Challenge. But hey, I like a challenge, and there's something strangely comforting about the knowledge that however depressing the outlook is for the week ahead on a Monday morning, there's just so much still to be learnt.