Learn me!
January 25, 2011 3:15 PM   Subscribe

I want to fill my brain with useful and common knowledge. What can I put in there?

I am a 26 year old American female. Sometimes I feel as though I was sick at home when the other fourth graders were taught about the branches of government or the characteristics of the planets. In fact, often I feel quite dumb. I constantly come across topics that a person my age should know about and wonder why I don't know more. I recently student taught in a 2nd grade classroom and as the inquisitive little buggers questioned me about the beautiful world around us, I thought to myself once or twice, "Well, kid, let me just Google that for you."

Clearly, I know what I need to do to improve my general knowledge of the world, and I'm working on amassing what I'm missing. But tell me: what are the essentials?

I'm thinking of things like this: historical figures, important dates, wars, social movements, geography, scientific principles, and so forth. This will be somewhat objective, of course.

Oh, and I'm smart in other ways, I promise. I'm not a huge lover of history (or math, or science...) which perhaps has lead me to tune out some of this basic knowledge over the years. For shame!
posted by sucre to Education (36 answers total) 95 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Duh. Objective = subjective!
posted by sucre at 3:27 PM on January 25, 2011

Do you watch Jeopardy? You could learn a lot of random facts about a lot of subjects from that.
posted by srah at 3:27 PM on January 25, 2011

Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" is a great place to start.
posted by Aquaman at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: This is pretty broad. As an American, I'd say that it'd behoove you to know at least about American government and politics - read about the branches of government, for starters.

To improve your general knowledge about the universe around you, though, my suggestion is: read periodicals. Every morning/evening find a news aggregator you like and read about current events, especially World and Science. If you run across a topic you don't know anything about, such as the history of the political climate in Iran or the moons of the planet Jupiter, look it up on Wikipedia. You can limit yourself to looking up one thing a day if you find this tedious or overwhelming. Also try to read National Geographic - it's a great way to broaden your knowledge about the world.

Also, don't beat yourself up too much if there's something you don't know. No one knows everything, and if you are curious about something, you have the resources to learn more about it at your fingertips.
posted by girih knot at 3:28 PM on January 25, 2011

Best answer: Wikipedia.

Seriously, you could spend HOURS reading articles, just by picking one and clicking on the related article links at the end of the article. Don't know where to start? Wikipedia's homepage has a "random article" link on the sidebar.

Just be aware that this is very bad for your productivity.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 3:31 PM on January 25, 2011 [8 favorites]

Things to know:

-- all Presidents in order.
-- importrance of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787
-- Rudd Weatherwax (for Trivial Pursuit)
-- Qom (for Scrabble)
-- The Ritz Brothers
-- L'Angelo Mysterioso- for sheer rock godessness
posted by timsteil at 3:33 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This is the book for you: An Incomplete Education. Slightly irreverent, semi-comprehensive, and a favorite of the high school trivia buff set. Skews towards Western Civ vs. a true global perspective, but it's a good starting point.
posted by deludingmyself at 3:33 PM on January 25, 2011 [6 favorites]

Also, is there any topic in particular that you are interested in? You could learn about fields you are less interested in through the lens of topics you are interested in.

Say for instance, you are into letter-writing. You could explore the history of written correspondence, the science behind paper or ink-making, the volume of mail handled by postal systems, etc. You're bound to pick up pieces of information not completely related to your chosen topic along the way, or discover new branches to explore.
posted by joyeuxamelie at 3:35 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: whenever you're reading an article/book/etc., if you come to a word that you don't know, stop and look it up. always. that's life-or-death when it comes to continuing learning.

big nth on Wikipedia-- start with something broad-ish like "cognitive biases" or "meta-ethics", and make your own notes to organize the finer categories. (those are my recent-ish fav's).

I suppose that might be a derail if you're aiming only for science and history.. hope it might help.
posted by herbplarfegan at 3:41 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

These are less fact-based trivia and more "essential knowledge", but from a math/science perspective:

-Know how to calculate a tip on a restaurant bill.
-Know what compound interest is and how to calculate it.
-Know how to estimate math problems to within 10-15% using only mental math.

The last one is really important, in my opinion, because it allows you to very quickly make gross judgments about whether something is "in the ballpark" or if you're way off. Doesn't have to be complicated stuff, either - something as simple as "do I have enough gas to make it to the next filling station" while you're in the car. "So, I have a quarter tank, it can hold 13 gallons, I get about 30 mpg on the highway, and the next rest stop is 120 miles away." Will you make it?

-Be able to, using simple office supplies, draw a perfect circle and a perfect right angle.

-Understand in very basic terms how all of the simple machines work - levers, screws, inclined planes, etc.
-Be able to explain to your 85-year-old grandmother (again, in basic terms) how a computer works and how it connects to the Internet.
-Know what an acid is, what a base is, how pH is measured and which numbers imply acidic or basic solutions, and why you should sometimes never mix the two (e.g., ammonia and bleach).
posted by backseatpilot at 3:54 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

If you do podcasts at all, you might like Stuff You Should Know and Stuff You Missed In History Class, both of which are produced by How Stuff Works. They also do several other podcasts, but those cover the bases in terms of the scope of your question.

Both of the above are more in the scope of "things your bog standard education might not have covered" or "stuff you've always wondered about", though they cover a lot of background "Was I Absent That Day Or What?" type stuff as background. They're not going to slog along, allowing the listener to be ignorant of the basic facts about Al Andalus even though the scope of the episode is to tell the story of the Reconquista. By listening to them, you will uncover a lot of general knowledge topics and figure out a good outline of Stuff You Don't Know to work on.

A laundry list of stuff that more directly answers your question:

Right now in the USA, I would say that the Most Important Things Everyone Needs To Know are A) Yes, The Civil War Was Actually About Slavery, B) No, Obamacare is not Socialized Medicine, and C) a basic sense of how the government works - at least on the federal level - and what your basic civil rights are.
posted by Sara C. at 4:11 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

TVTropes' Useful Notes index (previously) is surprisingly, er, useful. They've got hundreds of articles organized by subject -- history, biographies, science, profiles for dozens of countries. It's quite addictive, actually.

For a slightly more rigorous treatment, you can check out SparkNotes. They're famous for their guides to classic books, but they give the same treatment to physics, economics, philosophy, and other broad topics (they're listed in the left-hand bar here).

For a good history primer, I highly recommend Larry Gonnick's Cartoon History series. His Cartoon History of the United States provided a helpful and lighthearted bird's-eye view of American history that got me through AP History class, and his multi-volume Cartoon History of the Universe covers everything from the Big Bang to the Gulf War. He's got similar guides to statistics, chemistry, genetics, etc.

For more limited sets of knowledge, you could use Sporcle to quiz yourself on what you know and identify what you're forgetting, flashcard-style. Examples: US Presidents, European countries, the periodic table, etc. Another good quiz site for geography is Purpose Games, which take place on an interactive map and color-code your responses by accuracy.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:12 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding An Incomplete Education. I asked for this for a college graduation gift. Get a Reader's Digest home maintenance book and read it. Don't Know Much About History is another good one which I bought with a college graduation gift card. And I highly recommend How Our Laws Are Made, which you can find online as a free download.
posted by jgirl at 4:13 PM on January 25, 2011

I have always thought that the secret to doing well on Jeopardy was to know the order and dates of all the presidents. It seems like a lot of the Jeopardy-type questions can be figured out if you know that stuff.

I also love Wikipedia. Pick a subject (say, literature) and type it into Wikipedia preceded by the words 'history of.' You will get a little overview that will cover the bases and have links for further exploring.
posted by JoannaC at 4:22 PM on January 25, 2011

For science, I would recommend Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

For math, I would recommend Simon Singh's Fermat's Enigma. It's about a specific mathematical problem but definitely covers a good amount of general math history for the non-mathematical person. Both this book and the Bill Bryson book relay a lot of info through discussion of kooky personalities and interesting turn-of-events -- definitely fun reading where you happen to learn a bunch of stuff, too.

I find with math and science that I forget most of the details of concepts after I learn them. I think that's ok -- what's important to me is that I get the general idea of how evolution/universe expansion/chemical reactions, etc. work, and can follow new things I read pretty well. I know I'm never going to be a pro in any of these things, but I really enjoy having a basic understanding.

For government/political info, I would honestly just read a couple of articles from a good newspaper every day, and google/wikipedia the stuff you don't understand. You really learn a lot fast -- I don't strive very hard to know who the political players are, but by just skimming the headlines in the New York Times every day and reading a few articles here and there I think I have a pretty good base of knowledge on what's going on and who is running the country and the world. You learn a lot about history in this way too.

Jeopardy's a good tip, as are crosswords. Do the NY Times crosswords (start with the Mondays and Tuesdays -- they're the easiest) and you pick up little tidbits very quickly. I google things and learn as I go.

Also might be a good idea to start reading some of the classics and watching some classic movies for a general cultural knowledge base. Go through some of those "Most important books/movies ever" lists and start chipping away at them -- so many things you watch and read will reference these works.
posted by imalaowai at 4:27 PM on January 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

There are a ton of National Geographic documentaries available for online viewing on Netflix, on every subject imaginable. Some of them are fantastic; most are at least decent.

TED talks don't provide the textbook facts you're looking for, but they're chock full of fascinating new ideas and perspectives, making them a great way to broaden your knowledge. They're also very diverse; you're bound to find something you like. They're usually about 20 minutes long, which is long enough to dig into a subject, but short enough to be accessible.

Wikipedia is like crack for nerds. Just start reading articles about whatever you're curious about at the moment—tacos, fire trucks, symbolism, the Victorian era, Antarctica, predation, carpentry. Whenever you come across a link to a term that interests you (or one you don't understand), open it in a new browser tab (so you keep the original article open). If one of these branches leads you to something interesting, keep drilling into it. If a branch becomes uninteresting, or too technical, close the tab and continue reading where you left off. You might end up with 20 or 30 open tabs, but that's okay.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:31 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Track down Isaac Asimov's non-fiction essays, particularly the ones on the history of science. A lot of science classes makes it seem like a scientists somewhere decides, "Today I will discover Argon!" and then goes and does it. Instead, there is a bunch of head scratching and asking, "What the hell!?!?!?" that they never cover in science class.

Also seconding Gonnick's stuff.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 4:34 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]


This book is a really good overview of major world religions. It's less than five hundred pages long, and very readable. Each section deals with a separate religion, so you can digest it in reasonably sized pieces.

Religion ties into almost all aspects of sociopolitics, history, and the humanities, so it's good to know at least the basics.
posted by ixohoxi at 4:41 PM on January 25, 2011

I'm just going to keep posting. :)

Seconding Fermat's Enigma. For the same thing, but for physics instead of math, try James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman. Feynman was an American physicist of the mid-20th century, remembered as much for his wit and fascinating character as his formidable scientific accomplishments. And Gleick is a great science writer and biographer with a knack for making technical subjects accessible. It's a great read all around.
posted by ixohoxi at 5:06 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Give yourself a free morning or afternoon in a physical library; whether it is public or college-affiliated is up to your location. Wander around and pick up things that interest you. Go to the current periodicals. If you are lucky, your reference librarian has not yet been axed due to budget cuts. Ask about good guides to these areas of general knowledge, and then follow up.

You could start listening to Science Friday on NPR, or browsing io9.com's science section, or surfing PBS.org. The latter often has program guides with background and bibliographic information.

Or, if competition suits you, you could join a pub quiz night.

The great advantage you have over a fourth-grader is that you can learn for pleasure and at leisure.

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts in this, my n00b comment.
posted by MidSouthern Mouth at 5:17 PM on January 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Lists of random facts won't stick. What you need to acquire is frameworks that the facts can stick to. It's usually easier to learn things when you already have a grounding in the area. For example, if you know the basic outline of US history from 1600s-1950s, you'll have a much easier time remembering facts about - for example - who got voting rights when.

One thing you can try is identifying some area, and writing down an outline of what you already know in that area. Can you make such an outline for US history, say, what are the most significant things that happened in each 50 year period? This will give you a sense of what you're missing - maybe you don't know anything that happened between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Now you have a little project -- look that up on wikipedia and see what you find. Another approach is to look up a list of, say, 100 most important people in US history. Do you know who and when they were, what they did etc? Then compare to the real answers. Or try to draw a map from memory, then compare to a real map - what did you get wrong? These are ways of finding out some facts that will fit into a gap in an existing framework.

I second the recommendation of Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the World series. It's a quick and entertaining read. Things you want to know more about, look them up online.
posted by LobsterMitten at 5:21 PM on January 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

There are a lot of free classes online. Check out Western Civilization, and other civilizations, some classic literature, and other classes that meet the core requirements of a liberal arts education. Watch James Burke's Connections, available on youtube. I learned a lot of history from fiction, i.e., Wouk's Winds of War and War and Remembrance and more. I read poetry to get the context from lines that get quoted. The web makes this sort of knowledge so available. It's awesome.
posted by theora55 at 5:40 PM on January 25, 2011

One really fun way to do this is to multimedia yourself to death. Yes, read the "Cartoon History of the World" that several people have recommended. Also watch Segan's "Cosmos" series and all the James Burke documentaries ("Connections" and "The Day the Universe Changed") -- I think they're available on video.google.com.

Watch great historical drama series, like "Rome," "I, Claudius", "Upstairs Downstairs," "Downton Abbey," "Deadwood" and "Mad Men." You can get all of these from Netflix. As these are fiction, they are not always 100% accurate, but that's part of the fun. Watch "I, Claudius" and then read Wikipedia entries to see how accurately the story kept to historical fact. (I think series are better than movies, because they are longer. After watching all of "Upstairs Downstairs," you will feel like you've lived through the Edwardian period.

You might enjoy the podcast series "In Our Time," which is oddly named, because much of it has to do with stuff in times not our own, but it's also has episodes about science and philosophy. It's a weekly panel discussion in which a bunch of experts on The French Revolution or Black Holes or whatever share their expertise.

When you delve into a period of history, try making it as sensual for yourself as possible. Like, if you're reading a book about the 18th Century, also look at art from that period. And listen to music from it. If you're feeling daring, get some recipes from the time and cook them.

Speaking of which, do you have any hobbies or interests that might tie into math, science or history. I would be amazed if you didn't, since nothing just pops into the world without a history and without being subject to physical forces. For instance, if you're into sports, you can research their history back to the original olympic games and delve into the math behind making perfect shots in basketball. You can delve into culinary history and science. Same with the history and science of fashion.

One of the cool things is any one subject can be a window into all knowledge. You just have to take that subject and delve into every nook and cranny of it.
posted by grumblebee at 5:51 PM on January 25, 2011

I was thinking about adding In Our Time to my list, but I find that it assumes quite a lot of background knowledge. I passed two AP exams in history, went to a high school for gifted kids and a liberal arts college, have a degree in anthropology, and am otherwise a massive humanities nerd, and yet I sometimes need to hit pause and spend a little time on Wikipedia before I can really enjoy a lot of their podcasts.

Lately I've been digging this iTunes U Music Appreciation course, from Missouri State. It's a night school course for laypeople, and aside from being hilariously dated in terms of the occasional pop culture reference (or maybe the prof is just really out of touch?), it's ideal if you're curious about music theory, history, and the difference between a concerto and a cantata. It's about as basic as it gets - a martian could probably come out of it understanding this "mew sic" the Earthers go on about.
posted by Sara C. at 6:02 PM on January 25, 2011

This might sound weird, but why don't you try watching the game show "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?" It covers a wide variety of subjects from second grade to fifth, so you would get a good overview of facts you would have learned. Every time I watch it I enjoy seeing what I do and don't remember. It's never a case that I haven't heard said fact before; it's pretty spot on in terms of stuff you'd learn in school.
posted by unannihilated at 6:08 PM on January 25, 2011

Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know is just what you're looking for.
posted by lunchbox at 6:51 PM on January 25, 2011

Studying Pre-GED and GED prep books will cover pretty much everything you were supposed to learn in K-12. After that, The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge and The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy would also be helpful.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:56 PM on January 25, 2011

What has "historical figures, important dates, wars, social movements, geography, scientific principles, and so forth"? Literature!! Sex, violence, drama, and narrative tension help the facts go down easy, and there are some wonderful reads out there. You could pick an interesting period (whether past, present, or future), or a subject (e.g. revolutions, adultery, whaling, cryptography, ancient Egypt, pilgrimage, the divided self, punishment, borders, aristocracy), and ask a librarian for novels that deal with the subject (librarians rock). Get cracking - you only have another 74 years or so before your brain starts to lose plasticity. If you don't know where to start, I say start with Stendhal, Tolstoy, Dumas, Mary Renault, Neal Stephenson, Patrick O'Brien, Umberto Eco, Lady Murasaki, Rudyard Kipling, Gunther Grass, Amitav Ghosh, Ford Maddox Ford, Michener, E.L. Doctorow, Borges, Jim Thompson, and Chinua Achebe. See what sticks. Let me (us) know when/if you need more names. Feel free not to like them - put them aside and keep looking around. Lather, rinse, repeat. Not only will you have a great time and learn a world of nifty true facts, but you might get some insight into what they used to call "human nature" as well.

Watch "The Battle of Algiers" and see if you have any questions.

But read all of Ryszard Kapuscinski first. Really.

Have fun and keep us posted.

And congratulations on being curious.
posted by jcrcarter at 9:17 PM on January 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would suggest that as well as all this "catch up", spend some time on current events so that in 10 years time, you are not wondering about the things that happened in your adult lifetime when you could have been paying attention.

Consider something like the Guardian Weekly to keep up to date on world current affairs (it does have a website, but you can get good subscription deals with four weeks free to start.. and google for 50% discount, because there is a deal for that out there at the moment).
posted by AnnaRat at 9:55 PM on January 25, 2011

Useful indices, archives, and overviews for various subjects:

Modern American Poetry
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
The Perseus Collection (classical literature and studies)
The Language Construction Kit (Focused on synthetic languages, but still a friendly introduction to basic aspects of linguistics)
posted by Iridic at 11:02 AM on January 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

I was about to recommend The New York Times Guide to Essential Knowledge and Cultural Literacy till I saw that Jacqueline already did so. But yeah, they do a great job of covering a lot of the basic essential info of academia and pop culture(at least from an American perspective).
posted by Ryogen at 12:13 PM on January 26, 2011

The show QI could be good for this. Its humour makes it easy to watch, and it covers a broad range of topics, so you'll know what to look into next based on what tripped your interest.

Also, do you read as a hobby? I have a really broad general knowledge, to the point where my work mates will come to me with questions they should really just Google, like "Are oats gluten free? Which one was Marie Antoinette? Which airport has the code OOL?" The reason I can tell them is because I've read a lot, and even if you only pick up one useful piece of knowledge from a book, it builds up quickly over time.

(Actually, I had to Google the last question. Its Coolangatta Airport).

I recently student taught in a 2nd grade classroom and as the inquisitive little buggers questioned me about the beautiful world around us, I thought to myself once or twice, "Well, kid, let me just Google that for you."

There isn't a human alive who can answer every question a group of 7 to 8 year olds can throw at them.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 12:33 PM on January 26, 2011

I've enjoyed skimming through Homework for Grown-ups: Everything You Learned at School and Promptly Forgot, which I checked out from the local public library.

I totally second spending lots of structured time at any library that you like, whether it's public, academic, or your own.
posted by metabrilliant at 4:16 PM on January 26, 2011

My link above is to the wrong book. It's this:

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy

It's written with dictionary-style entries. Chapters include "The Bible", "Technology," "Idioms," "World Geography," "Mythology and Folklore", "Literature in English", etc.
posted by lunchbox at 7:08 PM on January 26, 2011

Response by poster: YEAH! You guys and gals are awesome. I've marked best answers but I liked all of your answers. I feel more capable now, so thank you!

The advice about looking up unknown words: YES. I don't usually do this, and then I go around thinking I have a general sense of a word and it turns out I don't. Thank you for the reminder!

Also, I personally really need repetition in order for things to stick. I wish I could read something once and then file it away for later use, but it doesn't work for me. Something to keep in mind while I'm studying.

I'm an arty person and have never been really oriented toward the math/science/history realms. I'm the kind of person who will go into an art exhibit and quickly skim the text that may be displayed about an artist (I really DO want to know what it says it just doesn't keep my attention) and then go stare at the art for a while. I know I'm an anxious person and sometimes feel a little attention-deficit-y too. Maybe that's preventing me in some way from deeply comprehending what's going on around me.

Anyway, THANKS!
posted by sucre at 6:00 AM on January 27, 2011

Hey, sucre, I just wanted to point out that, though I don't think of myself this way, I guess I am a math/science/history person. I work full-time as a computer programmer. I bring this up because you mentioned how you need to experience things several times before they stick.

Me too. Maybe there are math/science/history people who just read something once and get it, but I'm not one of them. And most of the math/science/history people I know aren't, either.

When something isn't our strong point, we tend to assume people who are good at it are that way by magic. But that's not true. They are generally good at it via hard work. (Einstein famously had trouble with arithmetic!)

I spent today training an employee how to use Photoshop. It was all designy stuff. But it was a lot to learn. When we got through with the training, my student asked me some questions about programming. To answer her questions, I opened up a programming editor, wrote a few lines of code, and explained to her how they worked. She understood, but she said, "I don't get how you learned to program."

I said, "But I just taught you a little bit of programming, and you understood that. And I taught you a lot of Photoshop, and you understood that, too."

She paused of a minute and said, "You mean it's just like that? You just read a book or take a class or something."

I said, "Yup. When I started, I didn't know anything about programming. I learned it by reading a bunch of books, taking some classes, and experimenting on my own. It was exactly the same process as learning anything else. I wasn't born knowing how to do this."

Of course, it's true that some people have more natural ability when it comes to certain subjects. But mostly that just means they'll learn those subjects faster than the average person. They still have to go through the learning process. It only seems "easy for them," because you didn't see them learning. You are meeting them after they have already learned.

One other thing that differs from one person to another: interest. When I first decided to learn how to program, I was as ignorant as anyone else about how to do it. But I was passionately interested in it. Had I not been, I probably wouldn't have gone through all the hard work I had to do to learn it.

You know that terrible feeling you get when you're trying to learn a hard subject and you JUST. CAN'T. GET. IT. I think that, when that happens to people, they generally assume "my brain doesn't work that way" and they quit. And then they see someone like me -- a full-time, paid programmer -- and they assume "his brain DOES work that way." They assume I never hit that "I. JUST. DON'T. GET. IT" wall.

If only they KNEW! I hit it hundreds of times. I totally hit it. When I was learning, came smack up against walls that seemed totally impenetrable. I KNEW -- or thought I knew -- that my brain was just not built to understand programming. I mean that very literally. I wanted to be a programmer. I tried to learn. I couldn't. I hit that wall that told me, loudly and clearly, "you don't have it in you to understand that stuff. GIVE UP!" And yet that's now how I earn my living.

And, to this day, I STILL hit those walls when I try to dip into some areas of programming that is new to me. There's this one programming book I've been trying to work through for 20 years. Not continually. But about once every five years I pick it up and try again. I usually get about four chapters in and then totally fail. I just CAN'T understand any more of it. I feel like a complete failure. Last year, I got a new rush of determination and started the darn book over again from the beginning. I got almost to the end of it! Then I got stuck on the last chapter. Again, I failed. And everything in the book is so connected, I know that when I try again, probably in a few years, I'm going to have to start at the beginning. Ugh. My honest feeling right now is that it's impossible for me to every understand that book.

But I will try again, anyway. Yes, even when I feel totally defeated, I try again. Sometimes it's not as extreme as with that one book. But I feel failure all the time. It's part of my life. I usually rest for a day or two, then I go back to the beginning of whatever book I'm reading and start over. Or I find a new book on the same subject and try that. Or I take a class. Whatever it takes and however many times it takes.

I don't think this is because I'm especially persistant. For instance, I have been trying and failing to learn to play the piano. And -- though I hate to admit this -- I may have just given up. Maybe I'll try again, but I really feel like I just can't get it and there's no point in trying. And with piano, unlike with programming, there's no impetus for me to push past that.

I really want to learn to play the piano, but the passion hasn't been there for as many years as programming -- and it's not there enough to push me past failure.

So please note that, on your intellectual journey, you WILL fail. Because people do. You will read a book on Biology or whatever and not get it. Or you'll get it and then forget it. At that point, what will you do? Give up or read another book (or reread the book you just read)?

I think this will depend on why you're doing this in the first place. Many people try to learn new things because (a) they feel they should or (b) because they want to prove to themselves or others that they're smart. There's nothing wrong with those reasons, except that they're not usually strong enough to push people past failure.

That's my problem with piano. I sort of feel like everyone "should" know how to play a musical instrument, and I'm ashamed that I can't. And I feel like people (including me) would respect me more if I could do it. Of course, I would LOVE to be able to play one just for the enjoyment of it. But, if I'm honest, that's not the primary draw. It's largely because I want to "be a better person." It's not something intrinsic about the piano. And THAT'S my problem. That's not enough to make me try again and again and again. It's only enough to make me sigh and say, "Well, I gave it the old Harvard try. I guess I just wasn't meant to be an pianist."

So it's worth doing some soul searching about why you want to learn all this stuff. Your reasons will likely affect your ability.
posted by grumblebee at 2:30 PM on January 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

« Older SOTU at a bar in Portland, Ore.?   |   all ears and thumbs. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.