Act Smart!: Back to School

Train your eye to find the “why” and you’ll never lack for things to learn.

I love The Sun, a 40-year-old literary magazine out of Greensboro, North Carolina that manages to dive deep while remaining highly accessible. In fact, it’s one of only two magazines I’m subscribed to (down from an anxiety-provoking seven), and the only one that I read cover-to-cover, every month.

But I don’t read it in order. My favorite Sun feature is the reader letters,  which are keyed to a monthly theme: “Breaking the Rules,” “Bullies,” “In the Dark.” I enjoy the letters so much, I treat them like dessert, flipping to the back and devouring them first, before digging into the meatier essays, interviews, and poems around them. I’ve tried doing it the “right” way—beginning at the front, and working my way through the back, just as I’ve tried to skip certain items that look like they might be overly challenging or simply bummer-inducing. I cannot do either. The editors have done too good of a job; their work triggers FOMO in me, and read it all, I must.

I am not sharing my literary neuroses in order to get you to subscribe to The Sun(although I would be thrilled if this column results in a few more subscriptions), but to prove a point: insanely helpful lessons are everywhere, if you can train yourself to look for them.

Everybody needs a hero—or a whole team of them

I’ve already shared my secret to forward motion, “Watch Who You Watch,” one of the greatest lessons I’ve ever been taught by any teacher, ever.

At every step along the artist’s journey, but especially the beginning, it’s critical to have good models. The people making the art you want to make don’t just inspire—they instruct. Even if they can’t (or won’t) explicate their process as articulately as someone like Ira Glass does storytelling, they leave the work behind for you to deconstruct yourself. If there’s an actor whose work always moves you, re-watch everything they’ve done as a student eager to learn rather than a civilian there to be entertained.

But, as another wise teacher of mine once shared, there are additional advantages to going outside your field for instruction. Sometimes, we can want something so much, we’re blinded to the process necessary to obtaining it. When we look to an adjacent pursuit, or even something far afield, we’re more relaxed and receptive to the necessary lessons. (Which are, at their root, the same for mastering anything.)

Build your own school of experts for bonus-extras!

There are rich lessons to be found in pretty much every excellent thing that interests you.

There are writers whose newsletters I subscribe to because I love the things they point me toward or their funny writing or the angles on issues that they provide.  The bonus-extra is that I am able to gather information on what makes for a compelling newsletter, something I’m very interested in as I think about launching a new one. I watch TED talks for the efficient information delivery system they provide; as I do, I also pick up tips on what does and doesn’t work when speaking from the stage, which helps strengthen my own presentations.

Even on Facebook, I scroll through my feed to catch up with what friends are doing; not only do get all kinds of ideas for places to visit, things to read, and stuff to cook as a bonus, I also learn what ways of sharing information on Facebook is effective (“Yay! I want to read this—this friend is awesome!”) or not (UNFRIEND).

Training yourself to look for the teachable moment in everything will change your life in profound and far-reaching ways. Restringing my guitar—and having to visit a few static sites and look at a few different videos before finding something that explains it in a way that’s useful to me—becomes a lesson in clarity. Stopping to visit with my neighbor and his daughter makes me a better neighbor, but also nets me a surprise spiritual guru as well as a ray of sunshine in my day. And watching a barista deal with a pain-in-the-ass customer gives me ideas about how to handle sticky client service issues in my business life.

Look at it this way: you have interact to with objects and people anyway, so why not get the most out of it?

And don’t forget the ultimate bonus-extra: as an actor, every single person you come across becomes grist for the acting mill!

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Kindle EBook of the Month: Since the fall is traditionally a time we think of as cleaning up our acts and getting back to business, I figure that a book on organizing might be a timely suggestion. Secrets of Professional Organizers Volume 3 ($3.97, or free loan with Amazon Prime) is a series of interviews with professional organizers, by a professional organizer (and one who is a pretty popular author of organizing, decluttering, and cleaning books). My all-time fave clutter-buster remains Brooks Palmer, but it’s kind of fun to get a mixed-grill of ideas and philosophies to trigger thinking.

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No animals were harmed in the production of this column. However, any Amazon links you click on will net me a minuscule affiliate fee, which I use to keep me in more books. Thank you for your patronage, and hey, you should really think about treating yourself to that new pair of skis you’ve been wanting once you click through!

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