Learning to learn is a skill. To master any skill, we have to intentionally find ways to practice that skill. I have always believed that work is one of the best places to learn. Work is our learning lab and our daily lessons are the curriculum. Yet, while work is rich with opportunities to learn, learning outside of those daily work routines is also important. It’s even necessary for us to reflect on how lessons from work are contributing to our life’s expression.
As summertime approaches and we finalize getaways to far off places, learning may be the last thing on our minds. Yet, our vacations could be more meaningful if we plan to not only enjoy some sunshine and fresh air, but also gain new insights about ourselves and others.
I just bought two bathing suits (because you always need more than one!) for our big family celebration in Sayulita, Mexico happening at the end of May. My husband and I are creating Spanish music playlists and upping our Spanish language game through our favorite language programs, Fluenz and Duolingo. But mostly, beyond the logistics of who wants fish vs. chicken for dinner and if the local DJ we are hiring can play 80s music (specifically Madonna), we are thinking about how to make it a meaningful and memorable experience for all 23 family members (ranging in age from two to 83!).
I have traveled a lot. I have backpacked across Europe, trekked across Tibet, and learned Spanish in Mexico. I have always approached travel as one big learning experience, even when I’ve traveled to places I’ve already been. I have learned to “notice new things,” as Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychology professor, has said.
I have written about Langer in a previous blog post. In her book, The Power of Mindful Learning, she shares that mindful learning can only happen when we are curious and willing to approach a situation from multiple perspectives. When we are in that inquisitive space, we notice new things. When we notice new things, we are put in the present. When we are present, we feel connected to people and our situation more deeply and meaningfully than when we are when multitasking or thinking about our next meeting. When we are connected deeply to our surroundings and those in it, we can access deeper understanding and feel a new connection.
One of the most meaningful travel experiences I’ve had recently was a trip to Galapagos Islands a few years ago with my sister. It had a huge impact on me. I think it was because I embarked on the journey at a time of great transition with my family. My father’s health was continuing to deteriorate and my mother was close behind him. I was in a sad but very curious place in my life. In particular, I was curious about the insights and stories my parents and family held that I worried I would never learn. I wanted my dad to share more of his sailing stories. I wanted to confirm that my mother really gave me my middle name, Jo, after Jo in Little Women (she did) and why. I wanted to be more connected to my older sister and learn more about how she was processing this next phase of life, too.
I was on my own personal journey as I was on an actual journey in the Galapagos; the trip became an allegory about my desire to understand the evolution of my family members as a means to understand more about my own. So I committed to learning mindfully in the Galapagos: I was present, I asked more questions, I was aware of my surroundings, and I noticed new things that I could connect to prior knowledge to create new understanding.
Richard Polatty, one of the world’s foremost Galapagos experts, was our tour guide and “teacher.” He had a wealth of knowledge that was, at times, overwhelming to take in. I took incessant notes in my unlined notebooks. As I took pictures, I captured the reference, wondering why I didn’t do this on previous trips so that I could have recalled the name of the sculptor whose work I admired in Hyde Park, or the name of the singer we listened to in that cathedral in Paris.
From Richard, I learned that if female finches like the sound of the call, they will mate. If the female hears a sound that only could come from a deformed beak, the female will pass. I took notes and photos of flowers, as I watched land iguanas munch on the prickly pear cacti’s fallen Opuntia blossoms. The prickly pear cactus trees, I learned, have evolved over time to grow taller and out of the iguanas’ reach.
We were stunned and thrilled to witness sea lions come right up to us, allowing me to get closer to them than I’d ever been. It reminded me of something Jon Kabat-Zinn once shared with me at a meditation retreat: “Be attentive and let the world come to
you. Be willing to let learning happen.” In the Galapagos, that world included fearless baby sea lions. Richard explained that their fearless gene has been passed down over several generations, an evolutionary design on account of having no natural predators to be concerned about in this environment.
As my family and I continue to plan our trip to Mexico, I keep reflecting on how to bring more mindful learning into our five days together, just like my sister and I did in the Galapagos. I’m working on being open to new insights about my family, being curious about their reactions to the experience, and learning something new about them that I didn’t know before.
Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers, has said: “A person susceptible to ‘wanderlust’ is not so much addicted to movement as committed to transformation.”
As you embark on your own vacations, remember that learning can happen anywhere and at anytime. It’s a mindful skill that we can keep perfecting. And it’s portable. Questions and curiosity travel with us. They are there for us to experience and transform ourselves and each other, if we let them.