Atomic Essay #3: I am learning

I want to learn everything. Knowing that this is impossible, I press on regardless. Such is human endeavour.

Atomic Essay #3: I am learning
Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič / Unsplash

I want to learn everything. Knowing that this is impossible, I press on regardless. Such is human endeavour.

I was apparently a 'bright child', as far as anyone with any recollection has told me, and I was what one might call bookish. I was easily distracted, a daydreamer, a scribbler in the margins. I didn't so much get educated so much as eavesdrop. I floated through school, liking English, sort of 'doing it'. I was never taught how to do any of it, not really: never taught how to write an essay, never taught how to analyse, never taught how to create a narrative. English was there, and I did it.

In 2010, I graduated with a degree in English. I floated around a bit more and became a teacher, because I liked English (or, at least, I liked doing reading and writing), and it seemed the least-worst option. At the time I was processing pensions in Peterborough.

Now, in 2021, I know more than I did in 2010 about English, but I know even more so how much I don't know. This overwhelmed me for a while. But now, I realise that I want to do three things with my life:

  1. Learn
  2. Teach
  3. Write

I thought there might be a formula by which I could realise these things; perhaps there was some special process I could follow. I don't think there is, but I have developed a few rules for myself as I learn. I'll outline them below. Why would I do this? Because there might be somebody out there, like me, who wants to learn a lot about English and how to teach it well, and doesn't think they'll be able to, or doesn't know where to start. Here's what I do:

  1. Read a lot. If someone recommends something on Twitter, I try to get to it sooner or later, if what they've recommended piques my interest.
  2. Read with a pen in my hand, or I take digital highlights. I don't take a lot of notes while reading - I might just note down a few fragments. The point is to read mindfully.
  3. Collect the fragments. Where I can, I turn the fragments into what we could call literature notes: summaries in my own words of what I've read and how / why it has resonated with me.
  4. See what ideas pop out and turn these into atomic notes. I call these evergreen notes, after Andy Matuschak. My whole system is indebted to him and his. These notes are atomic because they are about one concept. I return to them and flesh them out as a read other things and refine my thinking.
  5. Have conversations. I link my notes and see what conversations emerge. What can I learn? The learning happens when we connect the fragments. I have conversations on Twitter when I respond to others, too. That can be helpful.
  6. Show my work. This is why I'm writing this: because someone might respond. Because someone might think about things for themselves as a result. Because someone might discuss this post with me and influence my thinking. I worry about showing my work, but I tell myself that I've only really ever been proud of doing things I was frightened of, and that if I'm frightened it usually means I should do the thing. We get better at the thing by doing the thing.