From Chapter 9 “Learning” in Ingredients of Outliers.
I’m always amazed by the myriad of personalities encountered on any given day in the urgent care center or emergency department, at the office, or even when I’m simply out and about. Over the years, I’ve been fortunate to learn a few things from the thousands of patients I’ve treated and the remarkable individuals I’ve met along the way.
How is it that some people with serious acute or chronic diseases seem to accomplish so much, are very serene, and always upbeat? Why are some extremely accomplished individuals the most humble people you’ll ever meet? How is it that some people never speak an ill word toward or about others?
I’ve often thought about the answers to these questions and others of the same genre. After more than 25 years in medicine and a half- century on this earth, I’ve come up with a few ideas.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
Socrates was quoted as saying, “A wise man knows he knows nothing.” When you think about it, that’s the best part of learning —the knowledge that there’s still more to learn. How boring would life become if you knew everything you needed to know?
This list is far from exhaustive and, given some of my personal debacles of the past, I clearly have a long way to go during the homestretch.
Not long before his death at age 88, Michelangelo, the legendary sculptor and artist of Sistine Chapel fame, wrote two words on a sketch he had drawn: “Ancora imparo” — I am still learning. Imagine! This man, whose accomplishments few of us could even approach, remained eager to learn more, even in his old age. Keep in mind that when he died in 1564, reaching age 88 was really old!
I’m always inspired by stories of men and women who don’t allow their advancing years to stop them from tackling something new. A well-known example would be a woman born in 1860 as Anna Mary Robertson who retired from her life of farming at age 76 and began a new career as an artist. Her married name was Anna Moses. From then until her death at 101 years old, she completed more than 1,600 paintings and, as Grandma Moses, became one of our nation’s most famous artists.
Like Grandma Moses, George Dawson was a centenarian who had decided late in life to learn something new. Born in 1898 as one of five children descended from slaves, his education ended at age eight when he began working on a farm. He held a variety of jobs until finally retiring at age 90. Six years later, he decided to do something he never had time for—he wanted to learn to read.
George learned well and, at age 98, he co-authored Life Is So Good, the story of his life. In June 2001, a month before his death, he wrote an article that appeared in Guideposts magazine. In it he wrote: “I’m still going to school, working on getting my GED, even though I’m 103. After all, now I know why I’m here. I’m here to learn. I’m here to help show folks it’s never too late. . . ”
There’s the key to constant growth. Lifelong learning! It’s what makes our journey through life richer and keeps us young. When your life becomes easy, complicate it. I love this comment by legendary automaker Henry Ford: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”
So, what’s the first word that pops into your mind when you hear the word learning? Maybe it’s education, school, homework, graduation, or that hard-earned degree. Does it bring back memories—unpleasant ones perhaps—of your days in the classroom? Or maybe you think fondly of those “School days, school days/ Dear old Golden Rule days.”
That old song has been around for more than a century, but the part I remember is the line about being “taught to the tune of the hick’ry stick.” In my case, the “hick’ry stick” was a ruler, applied rather frequently and painfully to the back of my head—by my kindergarten teacher!
That’s right—in kindergarten! I remember as if it were yesterday: kneeling on hard linoleum in the corner of the cloak room, back straight, hands clasped together in front of me, eyes straight ahead, and then, WHACK, the sting of the ruler against the back of my head. I didn’t appreciate it a bit at the time but, looking back, I’m sure Sister Marie Emelda, as arthritic as she was, meant well. Unfortunately, she had an unusually severe, Joseph Stalin-like way of demonstrating her compassion and charity toward all living things.
You may be wondering how having repetitive closed head injuries help? When things seem to be going not as planned, I can always say, “How bad can it be? At least a nun is not beating me senseless!”
Years later, I read Robert Fulghum’s wonderful book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, and it dawned on me that corporal punishment, humiliation, and head injuries notwithstanding, I’d also learned some life lessons in kindergarten. In Fulghum’s words: “Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate school mountain, but there in the sandpile at . . .school.” They’re lessons that have served me well, both personally and professionally.