I have to learn new things constantly in order to keep myself entertained. I’m rarely interested in doing things that don’t allow me to learn, and when I look back at things I have done that don’t teach me anything, I tend to feel that I have missed a good opportunity to do something sensible with my time. But it is easy for me to get confused and think that I am learning something when I am actually not.
Last weekend, I went to New York for the purpose of teaching a class on wishful thinking in mathematics, but it ended up being canceled due to too much snow. So I went to the Morgan Library for the hope of getting a good educational experience. Going to an art museum seems like a good thing to do in order to try to learn something; after all, that’s one of the things that society tells us that cultured people are “supposed” to do, and shouldn’t being “cultured” be correlated with learning things? So I thought, and so I have repeatedly thought, but now I’m reconsidering (and looking for other opinions as well).
I don’t really know what the goal of learning things ought to be, but I do have a way of determining whether I have done so: is it possible for me to write something nontrivial based on my new information that I could not have written before? If I spend two hours walking around a museum looking at paintings, then I ought to be able to say something new about art and, perhaps, write a page of two that I couldn’t have written before. But I usually can’t, and when I can, it’s generally because I’ve looked really closely at a few types of paintings and determined which sorts of brush strokes tend to result in more or less realistic-looking paintings. And I doubt that’s what I’m supposed to get out of going to an art museum. (Or is it? What am I supposed to learn from going to art museums?) I also doubt that what I’m supposed to learn from art museums is that looking at paintings teaches me nothing about art but something about how I ought to spend my time and organize my life, but that’s what happens to me some of the time.
It would probably be worthwhile to go through all the activities that I do in which I expect myself to learn something and verify that I am learning. I could try to do that by writing about everything that I do, but I would expect that to be a huge time and energy sink that would take away from other activities. I probably ought to do that more than I do (I stopped writing here for a while in my last year of graduate school, since I was already spending a lot of my time writing my thesis and didn’t want to write recreationally as well), and I will try to make it a habit to do so. However, it would also be good to have some heuristics to suggest that I am learning, even when I don’t go through with the exercise of verifying it. I could, perhaps, simply have a conversation with someone else about my experiences. That wouldn’t force me to organize my thoughts in the same way as or as carefully as writing would, but it might take less energy, and it would also have the benefit of giving me immediate feedback: if I believe I have learned something but I am wrong, I have a good chance of figuring that out as fast as possible. (And that’s something I always want: I hate being wrong, and in fact I hate being wrong so much that if I ever am, I want to know as soon as possible so that I can change and stop being wrong. I might be temporarily offended, but that’s a small price to pay for getting better at being right.)
However, asking other people to review everything I do is a lot to ask of others, even if I spread it out over quite a lot of people, and I don’t like being a burden to others any more than is necessary.
Also, much of the time, it appears to be the case that there is something interesting for me to learn, but I simply lack the creativity to work out what it is. How do I fix this?
I invite suggestions; please tell me how I can learn more and spend less time only pretending that I am learning.