I had a dream about school last night. In my repertoire of recurring dreams, this one is pretty common. It plays out the same every time: I show up for class only to find it had begun a month earlier. I’m given a test. I know zero answers.
When I was in college, I often missed the first couple weeks of a course. I'd show up on exam day completely unprepared. Equally often, I skipped test day altogether, which triggered a cascade of worry that has obviously lodged, unresolved, in my subconscious
By some miracle, after four long years I had collected far more credits than were necessary to graduate. But I still didn’t have the right credits. Because instead of taking all the courses necessary to satisfy my major requirements, I signed up for the classes that satisfied my interests: Human Sexuality, The Psychology of Men, The Biology of Cancer, The Science of Meditation, Peaceful Conflict Resolution, Drawing 101, The Architecture of Urban Spaces. I was excited to learn new things—less excited to sit in those horribly lit rooms and fill in those horrible bubbles on those tests for those other classes that bored me to death.
You're probably in High School now, or maybe college. Either way, I hope by the time you're reading this, the structure of school has fundamentally changed. But in case it hasn't (The Slowness of Institutional Change), it seems important for me to tell you something I wish someone had told me early on: do not stress about your grades. How well you do in school will have very little to do with how well you'll do in life.
Most schools teach information with an end goal in mind: the test. They will condition you to think that having the right answer matters above all, that collecting the same information at the same rate as everyone around you is the same thing as collecting knowledge. They will make you think that sitting still and following the rules is the key to success. They will remind you to raise your hand before speaking up.
These are the exact things you will need to unlearn.
I want you to know that memorizing is not the same as knowing, education is not the same as wisdom. I want you to know that learning your own way is the only way. That the right answer usually just looks like thoughtful questioning. That you never need permission to speak up.
Don't give into the pervasive impatience that accepts knowing without thinking. Seeking wisdom and uncovering meaning takes time. It takes effort. As best as I can tell, there is no shortcut, there is no linear path.
The important thing is to learn to filter what you consume.
Past the headlines.
Past what’s popular.
Past what’s accepted by the masses.
Don’t watch the news, which turns information into stories designed to entertain the masses. Instead, actively seek sources you trust on topics that interest you.
Feed on information that matters.
Look for new angles.
Look for new context.
Find researchers exploring unconventional topics.
Find experts that exist outside the mainstream and listen to what they have to say.
Go straight to the source.
On your path to meaningful consumption, reject distraction.
Block out the noise, the chatter, the temptation of instant gratification.
Reject gossip, tabloids, junk.
Give your mind the space it needs to form its own opinions.
Chew on what you find.
Let it stretch your brilliant beautiful brain.
Mostly: read, read, read.
Let fascination be your guide.
Read across topics.
Read new stuff.
Read really, really old stuff.
Read whatever you can get your hands on.
Because at the heart of creativity is dot-connecting.
And you can only connect new dots when you have a diverse bank of existing dots to worm with.
I think you will come to find the joy of making a new connection is unmatched.
The best thing about real knowledge is once you have it, it can’t be taken away. It’s yours. To use however you see fit. Forever. And there’s nothing more empowering than that.
I love you, bright daughter of my sister,