The Saturday Read – Four blogs/newsletters you should be reading

Before I started writing ‘Workthoughts’, I was reading other blogs. Maria Popova, author of my favorite, ‘Brainpickings’, was the 2016 commencement speaker at her alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. She challenged the graduates to act as cultural change agents by continually broadening their horizons beyond a specific discipline.

“Today, the soul is in dire need of stewardship and protection from cynicism. The best defense against it is vigorous, intelligent, sincere hope — not blind optimism, because that too is a form of resignation, to believe that everything will work out just fine and we need not apply ourselves. I mean hope bolstered by critical thinking that is clear-headed in identifying what is lacking, in ourselves or the world, but then envisions ways to create it and endeavors to do that.

Whatever your specific vocation, your role as a creator of culture will be to help people discern what matters in the world and why by steering them away from the meaningless and toward the meaningful.”

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How do you maintain the discipline of the undergraduate learning experience and diversify your thinking?

In the past, traditional routes to post-graduate learning involved graduate and professional school. In rare cases, employers took on the role of educators, supplementing work with professional development options. Today, educational entrepreneurs are disrupting traditional education, offering countless ways to access knowledge online.

One of the most engaging options is to join folks who are exploring life’s mysteries and sharing their discoveries through blogs and newsletters.

For this week’s Saturday Read, I recommend four blogs/newsletters from contemporary ‘curators of culture’ that you should be reading to improve you critical thinking and supplement your journey of lifelong learning.

Brainpickings

Bruce Feiler, writing in The New York Times, described this blog as “the exploding online emporium of ideas”.

“She’s a celebrator,” said Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton professor and former State Department official. “You feel the tremendous amount of pleasure she takes in finding these things and sharing them. It’s like walking into the Museum of Modern Art and having somebody give you a customized, guided tour.”

Since 2006, Maria Popova has been sharing her cross disciplinary expeditions with a growing audience of readers.

“Brain Pickings — which remains ad-free and supported by readers — is a cross-disciplinary LEGO treasure chest, full of pieces spanning art, science, psychology, design, philosophy, history, politics, anthropology, and more; pieces that enrich our mental pool of resources and empower combinatorial ideas that are stronger, smarter, richer, deeper and more impactful. Above all, it’s about how these different disciplines illuminate one another to glean some insight, directly or indirectly, into that grand question of how to live, and how to live well.”

The next selection comes from the mind of writer and ‘philosopher of everyday life’, Alain de Botton. If you read Brainpickings or Workthoughts, the name should be familiar. The founder of London’s School of Life, publishes a weekly newsletter, ‘The Book of Life’.

 

The Book of Life 

“It’s called The Book of Life because it’s about the most substantial things in your life: your relationships, your income, your career, your anxieties. There’s always been a longing to gather the important things in one place. Some of the appeal of a Bible or the collected works of a big name author is the sense that amidst all the chaos and disparate sources of knowledge, someone has taken the trouble to distill, to compress, to say what is essential. In a world overflowing with information, what we most need is curation. The Book of Life aims to be the curation of the best and most helpful ideas in the area of emotional life.”

For those of you technology and engineering gurus who feel a bit insecure when a client conversation turns literary, subscribe to the ‘Lit Hub Daily’.

 

Lit Hub

“Started last year, Lit Hub’s goal is to provide a “go-to daily source for all the news, ideas, and richness of contemporary literary life,” with curated and original content such as interviews, profiles and essays.”

“Literary Hub is an organizing principle in the service of literary culture, a single, trusted, daily source for all the news, ideas and richness of contemporary literary life. There is more great literary content online than ever before, but it is scattered, easily lost—with the help of its editorial partners, Lit Hub is a site readers can rely on for smart, engaged, entertaining writing about all things books.”

The latest newsletter I have added to my daily/weekly routine comes from writer Austin Kleon. His Friday newsletter is an eclectic collection of music, art, design and life. To give you a sample, this week’s edition included George Carlin’s Playboy interview, an HBO documentary on Studs Terkel and the Everything is a Remix series.

What makes Austin’s blog unique is the doodles; his visual interpretation of information.

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Austin Kleon 

“I’m a writer who draws. I make art with words and books with pictures. Every week I send out a list of 10 things I think are worth sharing — new art, writing, and interesting links straight to your inbox.”

These four blogs/newsletters provide a customized curriculum of research and shared wisdom, delivered by a faculty of four non-traditional experts. Take a look, you may find one or more will fit with your individualized lifelong learning plan.

 

“Know something about something…”

What is this thing; lifelong learning? David Brooks called it the ‘question-driven life’, and the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke delivered one of the best defining quotes: “Know something about something. Don’t just present your wonderful self to the world. Constantly amass knowledge and offer it around.” 

Lifelong learning = Curiosity

Recently, in a response to a consultant survey, Michael Dell, the chief executive of Dell, Inc. identified curiosity as the one attribute a leader will need to succeed in the future.

Journalist and questionologist, Warren Berger reports ‘Why Curious People Are Headed To the C-Suite’ for the Harvard Business Review.

“Dell was responding to a 2015 PwC survey of more than a thousand CEOs, a number of whom cited “curiosity” and “open-mindedness” as leadership traits that are becoming increasingly critical in challenging times. Another of the respondents, McCormick & Company CEO Alan D. Wilson, noted that business leaders who “are always expanding their perspective and what they know—and have that natural curiosity—are the people that are going to be successful.

“These days, a leader’s primary occupation must be to discover the future,” Panera Bread CEO Ron Shaich told me. It’s “a continual search,” Shaich says, requiring that today’s leader keep exploring new ideas—including ideas from other industries or even from outside the business world.”

OK, you’re not the head of a multi-national corporation, but you have questions, and not just about the technical aspects of work. It’s the human stuff that’s a bit more difficult to unbundle.

There have been continuing education and extension programs catering to adult learning for a hundred years. Most are connected to an academic institution and offer ‘lite’ versions of curricula taught to college students.

In the summer of 2008, ‘philosopher of life’ Alain deBotton founded ‘The School of Life’ in London a few blocks walk from the Russell Square Underground Station. Since then it has evolved into the new model for lifelong learning, employing non-traditional faculty to deliver programing focused on “developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand, and where necessary change, the world.”

In the Marchmont Street location, and recently opened global sites, professionals come together to learn, share and evolve in a safe space of respectful interaction. This past weekend, SOL offered a ‘pop-up’ sampling of programs in Los Angeles. I attended three of the five sessions led by philosopher and trust consultant, Brennan Jacoby.

On a beautiful California Saturday morning, a diverse group of students arrived at the Design Matters Gallery to begin a day of three, 90 minute sessions. The content informed, inspired and provoked lively discussion.

The School of Life model works because talented faculty deliver contemporary topics, using an instructional technique that allows for the right balance of introspection, sharing and networking. Sessions seemed to end too soon, with attendees lingering to continue conversations.

For the Los Angeles weekend the topics included: How to Find A Job You Love, How to Be Creative, How to Think Like an Entrepreneur, How to be Confident and How to Have Better Conversations.

The School of Life is a catalyst for the question-driven life. If you’ve decided your ‘wonderful self’ is not quite perfect yet, and you’re “ready to amass knowledge and offer it around”, set you lifelong learning GPS on London, or visit the website to begin your quest.

 

 

 

The Saturday Read – ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf

This weekend we celebrate exploration and discovery in recognition of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Americas. What motivates those who choose a life of adventure and exploration? The ‘Saturday Read’ is the career story of an intrepid pioneer whose curiosity drove him to become one of the most famous of his age.

The ‘Saturday Read’ this week is ‘The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ by Andrea Wulf.

I first encountered von Humboldt when reading ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton. At the end of a chapter ‘On Curiosity’, de Botton shares a quote attributed to von Humboldt near the end of his life:

“People often say that I’m curious about too many things at once: botany, astronomy, comparative anatomy. But can you really forbid a man from harboring a desire to know and embrace everything that surrounds him?”

Alexander von Humboldt was the master of connecting the dots and lived at a point in time when the multidisciplinary approach fueled exploration and discovery.

“Alexander von Humboldt has been largely forgotten in the English-speaking world. He was one of the last polymaths, and died at a time when scientific disciplines were hardening into tightly fenced and more specialized fields. Consequently his more holistic approach – a scientific method that included art, history, poetry and politics alongside hard data – has fallen out of favour. By the beginning of the twentieth century, there was little room for a man whose knowledge had bridged a vast range of subjects. As scientists crawled into their narrow areas of expertise dividing and further subdividing, they lost Humboldt’s interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as a global force. 

One of Humboldt’s greatest achievements had been to make science accessible and popular. Everybody learned from him: farmers and craftsmen, schoolboys and teachers, artists and musicians, scientists and politicians…Unlike Christopher Columbus or Issac Newton, Humboldt did not discover a continent or a new law of physics. Humboldt was not known for a single fact or discovery but for his worldview. His vision of nature has passed into our consciousness as if by osmosis. It is almost as though his ideas have become so manifest that the man behind them has disappeared.”

Today universities scramble to attract students with multidisciplinary offerings, but the silos of academia continue to resist cross-pollinization of knowledge. This is why we need to remove the invisibility cloak from von Humboldt and revisit his curiosity and travel the roads that led to his discoveries.

Author Andrea Wulf wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, ‘Alexander von Humboldt: The man who made nature modern’, linking his conclusions to the environmental challenges we face today.

“At a time when scientists were classifying the world into ever smaller taxonomic units, Humboldt regarded Earth as one great living organism in which everything was connected. It was a radically new approach, and it makes him a naturalist hero for the 21st century.”

“With California in the fourth year of serious drought, with forest fires burning, oceans rising and extreme weather spreading havoc, Humboldt deserves to be rediscovered. His interdisciplinary methods and his concept of nature as one of global patterns should underpin our policymaking.

As scientists try to understand and predict the consequences of climate change, Humboldt’s belief in the free exchange of information and in fostering communication across disciplines is vitally important. His insights that social, economic and political issues are closely connected to environmental problems remain resoundingly topical. “Mankind’s mischief …disturbs nature’s order,” he warned, in words as relevant today as they were two centuries ago.”

Alexander von Humboldt’s legacy echoes in the works of John Muir and George Perkins Marsh and in the wild gardens of California where the native ‘Humboldt Lily’ thrives in a dry climate. And now it’s preserved in the words of Andrea Wulf. Enjoy the ‘Saturday Read’ and encourage your children to grow up to be polymaths.

humboldt lily

The Saturday Read – Alain de Botton ‘The Art of Travel’

This week’s ‘Saturday Read’ is ‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton. It’s not your typical travel guide, although scenes are set in a variety of global locations. We join the author as he navigates the world, his neighborhood and his room. We are accompanied on the journey by artists, explorers, poets and novelists: Wordsworth in The Lake District, Vincent van Gogh in Provence and Alexander von Humboldt in South America.

This wonderful book should be read in small bites, a tapas menu to savor, in advance of any journey you may have planned. It’s a philosophical view of travel and requires us to reflect through the lens of our fellow pilgrims before we rush on to the next chapter.

The book is segmented into four sections: departure, motives, art and return. In each the author is puzzling through why expectations of travel don’t quite live up to promise. We begin to examine our relationship to the distant and familiar as we eavesdrop on Mr. de Botton’s thoughts as he considers his relationship to place.

Early on, he realizes:

“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making itself apparent: I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

Place has the potential to transform us, but our fundamental self remains our companion and colors our experience.

“What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting.

Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.”

How we respond to place is limited by the resources we utilize in our process of discovery. Travel companions share critiques and travel guides list the top ten things to see. Our expectations are set through the eyes of others who have gone before.

“Our responses to the world are crucially moulded by the company we keep, for we temper our curiosity to fit in with the expectations of others.”

On a visit to Madrid, the author ventures from his hotel:

“It was a sunny day, and crowds of tourists were stopping to take photographs and listen to guides. And I wondered, with mounting anxiety, What am I supposed to do here? What am I supposed to think?”

“Where guidebooks praised a site, they pressured a visitor to match their authoritative enthusiasm, and where they were silent, pleasure or interest seemed unwarranted.”

“..if my compass of curiosity had been allowed to settle according to its own logic, rather than being swayed by the unexpectedly powerful force field of a small green object by the name of The Michelin Street Guide to Madrid…”

We travel for different reasons. ‘The Art of Travel’ encourages us to trust our ‘compass of curiosity’ and discover our own wonders of the world.

Authenticity and Alignment

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit the School of Life in London. Located in a storefront on Marchmont Street, the school was founded in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton to create a space for conversation and learning around topics that aren’t necessarily taught in formal education, but critical to success in everyday life: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families.

On my visit I picked up a copy of  ‘How to Find Fulfilling Work’ by School of Life faculty member Roman Krznaric. I have read a lot of career guides, too many. But this short guide stood out from the others in the authors description: “It is a guide for helping you take your working life in new directions, and for bringing your career and who you are into closer alignment.”

We have all heard about authenticity, being who you are, not letting others define you. Just last night Sam Smith accepting the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album shared his example, “Before I made this record I was doing everything to try and get my music heard. I tried to lose weight and I was making awful music. It was only until I started to be myself that the music started to flow and people started to listen.”

There’s something to it. You have to know yourself and be yourself before you can find success.

The School of Life has posted an animated video to help you start the process of how to find fulfilling work.