Wisdom by way of Picasso and Elizabeth Bennet

Our greatest thinkers, artists, innovators and scholars have in common a curiosity that persists throughout life. They are open to new ideas and never stop learning. As Pablo Picasso said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.”

All dimensions of wellness “act and interact” in ways that impact quality of life. Growth in the intellectual dimension helps us pro-actively solve problems, widens our understanding of the world and its people, and gives us a sense of control over events. Intellectual well-being is a key factor in maintaining resilience in the face of stress because it enables us to think critically, to see opposing points of view and to trust ourselves to make good decisions.IMG_0416

Recent findings from the Benefits of Lifelong Learning project show that non-job related adult education increases self-confidence and well-being, leads to greater tolerance of and trust in other people, and broadens social networks. Adult learners become more health-conscious, start doing more volunteer work in their communities, and show increased motivation to further their studies. Learning begets learning, or as daVinci noted, “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Earlier this week, I attended a funeral where a young man eulogized his grandfather by sharing with us some of his wisdom. The older man was intensely proud of his grandson, yet he often said to him (with a smile), “Remember – you’re always a freshman.” Not only was he saying, “Don’t get cocky,” he also meant that we’ve always got something to learn, we’ll always be new to something. Or as John Wooden put it, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

There’s often a sigh of relief at graduations – whether high school, college or grad school – that formal education is finished, at least for a while. But after some time passes, many of us miss those days in school, and not just because of the lifestyle. We miss being challenged, stimulated, exposed to new ideas, that buzz we get when we feel ourselves growing. Unfortunately modern life often distracts us from further intellectual pursuits – we get caught up in earning a living, raising a family, keeping up with the latest technology, and think that we don’t have the time or money or energy to take a class, learn a language or practice a musical instrument.

Fear sometimes holds people back too. Deciding to learn something new first requires us to admit that there’s something we don’t know. That’s more difficult for some of us than we’d like to admit. We don’t really want to be “a freshman” again. What if we fail? What if we’re not good at something? Can our fragile egos take the risk?

Fortunately, there are ways to dip a toe in the water of intellectual growth if signing up for that degree program or those cello lessons is too big a step right now:

  • Read a book for fun. Yes, fun. It might be non-fiction on a topic that interests you; or try fiction in a genre different than your usual taste.
  • Attend a seminar or lecture. Local newspapers are usually full of listings for free events, at least in big metropolitan areas.
  • Write. A private journal or a blog such as this one will stimulate critical thinking and send you out looking for information and ideas.
  • Play old-fashioned board games or card games. Many of these challenge you to think strategically.
  • Watch a TED talk. They have thousands of short lectures that offer “ideas worth spreading.”
  • Stay up to date with events in the world, but don’t just accept what you see and read. Question it, look for the opposite view.

There’s a scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Mr. Darcy tells Elizabeth Bennet that he doesn’t have the talent for easily conversing that some people do. Elizabeth counters by saying that she doesn’t play piano as well as some women, but she always took that to be her own fault for not practicing enough. Ultimately we are each responsible for our own growth and development, aren’t we?

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