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Looking Back: A Year of Learning
Last week, I finished the first year of a learning journey in the form of a part-time degree program designed for working professionals with an interest in the liberal arts (and especially the humanities). It is intended to be completed over 4 to 5 years. I managed to make it through year 1 without flunking out, hurrah — someone give me a medal! Feels like a good time to take stock and make some observations.
In search of lost time
First, a comment on time. I sometimes get asked the obvious question about how I found the time to do this. The answer is easy: my discretionary reading, which has been a big component of my time since I was a child, has almost disappeared. The MLA — classes, reading, and the writing element — has taken its place, and I expect that will continue for the remaining years of the program.
This will become clear in my year end top ten books list, which I expect to be dominated by readings from the program. This also means that any reading done for pure fun needs to be squeezed into the summer (and the winter break!).
Meaning and purpose
I expected the MLA to help bring more meaning and purpose to my life, and it has been so.
We all derive some level of self-esteem from our work, and I am no exception (although I’ve become much less so over the years). The nature of the business I am in — technology investing — is that one can arrive at an extremely warped view of whether one is leading a productive existence, a view that is magnified by the fact that tech investing can be a self-referential bubble.
It is also very easy to let one’s moods and emotions be driven by what is occurring at work. This is true of almost any intense profession except very solitary ones.
Don’t get me wrong — there is plenty of meaning and purpose in my work, especially when I zoom out a bit. What the MLA has done is bring balance, and a reminder that a century from now, nobody is going to be writing learned articles on “venture capitalists of the early 21st century.” They will certainly, on the other hand, be writing learned articles about more enduring topics.
As you get older, the circle of people who can look at you beyond what you do for a living or other surface roles you might play really shrinks. For the most part you are left with high school or college or early career friends, friends made at a time when you were still just you and not covered with layers of activity and a web site and a LinkedIn bio. This group becomes even tinier as people move around the world and acquire their own life experiences that diverge from yours.
With the MLA, these other identities, which we all possess, are left at the door. We are not in this program for “networking” or acquiring professional skills — we are in it because we have an abiding intellectual interest that has driven us to find the time for a formal commitment to a degree program while leading very busy professional and personal lives.
So the bonds that form are of a fundamentally different nature than anything else in my life at this time, and I am very grateful for it. I confess that my contribution to this bonding mostly involves incessant whining about the papers we have to write.
Amidst all this bonding and meaning and purpose, learning also occurs! For me, that has taken two forms:
Exposure to a staggering diversity of literature. I would not have read the unabridged Decameron or Aeneid on my own — nor Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of my Teeth. Nor would I have read these works in the way that the program makes me read, with far more depth and insight than my casual reading.
Getting my act together around the elements of more formal academic writing. Let’s just say that is work in process… a process that has also been a stark reminder that I have truly negligible talent. My respect for people who really know how to write — academic or otherwise — has really grown. But I trudge along!
Why am I sharing these ramblings with the world, as it were? Two reasons based on my experience here:
I think it is important to find balance in the modern world for one’s sanity; to find purpose away from one’s job.
With so much available now via online learning, any of us can pursue our interests if that pursuit helps bring this balance and purpose. This is something that really could not be said at any prior point in humanity’s evolution. It does not have to be as formal as what I chose to do.
You will have to make adjustments to your life to do any form of learning the justice it deserves — it was not easy for me to give up ALL my discretionary reading. But a year in, it feels more than worth it.