This essay continues the thoughts in a previous essay, Before Learning: The Role of Awe in Life and Learning.
If wonder is the beginning of wisdom, perhaps reflection is the other bookend, the process by which we form thoughts, shape opinions, and reach conclusions on the things we learn.
If I Could Do School Over
If I were to re-do my schooling—I wouldn’t—I would take more time to reflect. Here’s why. Throughout the years of formal education, I tended to do better in final exams than in midterms, because I learned the most when studying for finals. The distinct difference here was the scope of the materials. During finals, I studied the entire curriculum for a given subject, which gave me a narrative of the past semester.
Having this big-picture view, I finally understood the context of each individual lesson, why we went through certain subjects, and how they connected to other topics in the class. I knew this then and I know it now: I was always a big-picture learner. I could grasp knowledge better if I knew its context, as if fitting it to a larger puzzle in my mind.
In my field, most classes involved solving problems with a multitude of equations. During the semester, it was easy to get lost in what the lecture covered at a particular moment, since the equations looked similar from week to week. How did week 5’s problem differ from week 4? Since the lectures went over nuances of similar problems, it could be hard to discern the differences in real time.
It also didn’t help that during lectures, I was too busy copying notes from the board, limiting my attention to the essence of the lecture.
But all of these fragmented pieces would come together beautifully during finals (and often not before this). I now understood how to apply the equations in the appropriate time and situation. I could understand the problem formulation, the principles that applied to it, and the method to solve it. This integration, to me, was the pinnacle of learning. I finally grasped what I studied.
Yet, truthfully, I did not have to wait until finals for this knowledge-alignment to happen. It could have taken place throughout the semester; I just did not have the wisdom to try seeing the big picture. If I could do school over, I would reflect more to understand the context of what I learned each day.
The Growth of the Mind
In Before Learning, I mentioned Mortimer Adler’s—author of How to Read a Book—definition of learning as the process by which the gap or inequality between the mind of the teacher and the student is closed. Once this gap is closed, though, equality is reached, and a learner can then evaluate and judge the situation for herself. She may agree or disagree with the teacher, fully or partially. The bottom line is, this post-learning experience is a crucial part in independent thinking–to think for oneself and not be a mere reflector of other people’s thoughts.
In reflection, we organize knowledge into a mental framework or worldview. Perhaps before, we only knew one side of an argument, but after learning, we see another side and gain perspective on our original position. Perhaps we gain wider horizons on how the world works. A life of continual learning means a continual shifting of this mental structure, not always drastically, but a shift nonetheless. This is the growth of the mind.
The pace of schooling these days could well prevent a student from integrating all these bits of knowledge into a coherent set of insights, if she didn’t take time to reflect. Thus, I’m advocating a carving out of time to do this slow thinking in one’s life schedule.
Contextualization and Connection
Personally, reflection is about two things: contextualization and connection.
Contextualization is about understanding the bigger picture, the context in which a particular subject resides. It’s about answering these questions: Why is this subject important? What problem does it address? What problems does it not address? Are there limitations to its proposed solutions?
Usually, this bigger context is a real life issue. In scientific journal papers, the biggest context is usually the introductory paragraph, big statements like curing cancer, solving the energy problem, etc. The subject matter that we study, though, is usually a subset of a subset of the solutions, meaning that there is a cascade of contexts between the biggest picture and our subject matter. Developing this mental framework takes time, but will distinguish those who excel in understanding from regular learners.
Connection is about linking the subject matter to other adjacent topics within the same context. How does this material connect with what I already know? Does it complement, expand, or contradict my previous understanding? How about its relationship with other approaches or propositions? What other disciplines are relevant to this subject?
This approach applies some divergent thinking. It would also help prevent thinking about something in a single narrative.
Maybe there is one more dimension to reflection worth adding here. It’s personalization—how does this learning change me as a person? Am I different? What would I do differently given this new understanding?
Reflect to Gain Wisdom
There are ways to develop a habit of reflection in life. I’d like to suggest here a few tips on how to do this practically.
For students, reflect often on what you learned in class that day. Do it often, daily or weekly (monthly or quarterly is too long, in my opinion). Pushing it further, write down your thoughts—a line or two—each time. This will help you retain information.
When the quarter or semester is over, ask yourself, what new understanding did you gain compared to the previous semester? How did the class connect to other subjects? Concurrently, this reflection would also help you find interests and explore a potential career in the future.
For the general population, take time to ask yourself, have I learned anything recently? Am I growing? Are my skills developing? Without the structure of formal education, we can get lost in just doing the same things week by week, month by month, and year by year. It’s important to take stock on our growth process in all aspects of life and work.
For readers, after reading a book, ask the following questions:
– What did the author propose?
– What problem did he address? What didn’t he address?
– What truths are proposed in the book?
– Do I agree, fully or partially? When does that truth apply, and when does it not apply?
– How am I changed as a result of reading this book?
Taking the time to do this instead of rushing to another book will help you remember the content of the book longer. Adler’s books, for example, influenced me in formalizing a structure of post-learning reflection to enhance wisdom. It taught me that there’s work to be done before and after reading a book, and that I am obligated to form an opinion/position.
Reflection is key in the art of self-learning, serving as guideposts to keep us both motivated and self-aware. If I could share one tenet to live by as a learner, it would be this: Study to be smarter, Reflect to be wiser.
Photo credit: FreeImages.com
The following experiences happened within the last 3 months:
Tried on a winter jacket at The North Face store, nicely designed, warm, and smooth. Went to a next door store that sold jackets with one-fifth of the price, but it was plastic-y, with rough hems and zippers that caught repeatedly.
Waited for an hour at a doctor’s office, ended up having a 10-min visit with the doctor, during which he gave his regular spiel (overheard him from another room) without ever addressing me personally or mentioning my name. The visit cost $70.
Got my car checked at the dealership. Greeted by a representative who introduced herself and addressed my name with a smile. Answered all of my questions in a calm, unhurried way, performed requested services, and sent me off with a handshake. Good job, Honda.
Visited a Greek restaurant during restaurant’s week. The place was busy and well staffed, but everyone was super alert and watchful over the customers. There was no slacker there–no one standing around spaced out having nothing to do. Everyone walked like they had somewhere to go, quickly. Used plates were cleaned and replaced, drinks refilled, boxes offered without being asked. Free valet service was offered to all customers, and they speed walked to get the car. All around efficiency–loved it!
Waited almost half an hour in a baggage-drop line at the airport with only 3 people in front of me. Despite the long line formed, one of the agents strolled off and disappeared into the back room, never returning until who knows when.
Read a journal paper that was meticulous in its problem definition, step-by-step in its explanation, and comprehensive in analysis. Edifying from the first read.
What made some of these experiences extremely pleasant? Excellence.
When a person, a company, or an establishment is excellent in product design, service, academically, or technically, they can command loyalty from customers and assign higher prices, and people would pay willingly and happily. I have visited many doctor’s office in my local area and to this day, I have not settled on one yet. Whereas with my car, since the first day I came to this particular dealership, there was no thought of going anywhere else. The one time I did, I was sorely, sorely disappointed.
Both establishments surely need to make money and serve as many customers as possible, but one tries to hide this from the consumers’ experiences and takes time to perfect their services, and the other doesn’t. It troubles me somewhat that the assembly line mentality is present in health care services more than my particular auto service provider.
Excellence matters, not only because it makes good business sense, but also because it enhances people’s experiences and brightens up their days.
The Moral Imperative to Be Excellent
Paul Kalanithi, in his book When Breath Becomes Air, reflected deeply on the moral imperative to excel in neurosurgery, where a millimeter-level error could result in an altered life and identity of his patient.
“As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed–or fail–were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”
“Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear. Certain brain areas are considered near-inviolable, like the primary motor cortex, damage to which results in paralysis of affected body parts. But the most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language… If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?”
Early in his medical training, he realized the soul aspect of his work:
“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life–and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul–was obvious in its sacredness.”
Contrast his commitment to excellence with an incompetent resident he came across during treatment. Paul wrote,
“Meeting his obligation to me meant adding one more thing to his to-do list: an embarrassing phone call with his boss, revealing his error. He was working the night shift. Residency education regulations had forced most programs to adopt shift work. And along with shift work comes a kind of shiftiness, a subtle undercutting of responsibility. If he could just push it off for a few more hours, I would become somebody else’s problem.”
The difference? One saw his work as a sacred calling and another saw his as a job–a checklist of tasks to do and get by.
The Fullness of a Work
Certain professions have greater immediacy to life-threatening danger upon failure. How would you like to fly on a plane designed to survive 99.99% of the time? The number looks impressive, but 99.99% means 1 out of 10000 flights would fail. With about 100,000 flights scheduled each day in the US, this statistics is way too poor. Nothing less than 100% is good enough in aviation.
I would argue, however, that the life-threatening level is not the only measure to the importance of excellence. One’s work doesn’t have to implicate life and death to carry moral weight in society. Instead, most work makes a difference in other people’s lives, improving or deteriorating their experience and quality of life.
Yet more than avoiding liability, excellence brings joy. Encountering excellence in a good book, a great teacher, or an excellent service makes us happy. The task is not just done, but fulfilled–filled to the full. This goodness multiplies in the recipients of the work and propagates to others they would in turn impact.
I would further submit that this is also the way to work happily. Excellence is never accidental, always intentional, effortful, and focused. And when it bears fruit, it’s extremely fulfilling.
The old adage says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A truly wise saying.
Follow this post with the Anatomy of Excellence.
Image credit: Freepik
“Where did the time go?” we often ask, and no matter the frequency of this conversation, it’s never boring, because we feel its truthfulness each time. Blink once, it’s Monday, blink twice it’s Thursday, and so the weeks, months, and years pass by.
Age, I hear, accelerates this experience, and I can probably agree. It took forever and a half to reach age 10 and another half to 17. But to the observing adults, my aging probably did feel fast. They certainly talk about the flying time with more intensity.
Mathematically, it’s been explained that the ratio of a fixed amount of time, say, a year, to the total length of our growing lifetime will only diminish, hence the increased speediness. It’s perfectly rational. I like rational. But, if the math is the real cause of the experience, how scary is that? It means life will only move faster and faster, like a runaway train that’s gone out of hands. Is there nothing to be done about it?
A Glimmer of Hope
Reading Oliver Sacks’ Gratitude and Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air tells me that there may be a way out. Written when their authors were cancer-ridden—the first, a collection of essays written during Oliver’s last two years of his life and the second, written during the two years between Paul’s diagnosis and his death—both writings seem to know how to slow time down.
Faced with the finiteness of their lives, these authors mastered the art of living consciously (isn’t this why time feels fast—it goes by and we are not conscious of it) and thus put a break to the speeding train of time. The writing certainly feels that way, and in reading their words, my time too slows down.
Consciousness of time, I think, is the kindred subject that occupied both men, evaporating the near half-century gap between their ages. Linked to this is also the fierce quest of meaning and the evaluation of their lived years.
Confronting mortality, humankind is forced to reflect. What of my life? Has it been good, meaningful? Am I contented with who I am? And in reflecting, time is recaptured, somehow.
Whether intended or not, Paul and Oliver’s writings have this recapturing effects on me. Their sense of sacredness in the time they had left produced words that grace their readers with wisdom. Yet, is this gift only possessed by those close to death’s door? I’m not dying–not that I know of, at least–and I too am covetous of this consciousness of time.
Oliver’s last and poignant essay was titled “Sabbath,” published in the New York Times two weeks before his death last August, and one that was very important to him. As his days were closing, he found his thoughts drifting back to the Sabbath.
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
After abandoning his Jewish faith and heritage for decades, Oliver recalled one Sabbath celebration in 2014:
The peace of the Sabbath, of a stopped world, a time outside time, was palpable, infused everything, and I found myself drenched with a wistfulness, something akin to nostalgia, wondering what if: What if A and B and C had been different? What sort of person might I have been? What sort of a life might I have lived?
I wonder if the Sabbath was made so that humankind would live, in the deepest sense of the word, with consciousness of time. The gift of rest in the Sabbath surpasses the physical realm into the essence of life itself. This infusion is not automatic—I’ve lived Sabbath to Sabbath my entire life and I know that Sabbath too can be busy—but it is a space and time carved out to stop and reflect each week. Did I do well? Was I good? Did I do things that matter?
Robert John Aunamm, 2005 Nobel Laureate in Economics, said in an interview that Oliver mentioned in his essay,
The observance of the Sabbath is extremely beautiful, and is impossible without being religious. It is not even a question of improving society—it is about improving one’s own quality of life. For example, let’s say I’m taking a trip a couple of hours after the Sabbath. Any other person would spend the day packing, going to the office, making final arrangements, final phone calls, this and that. For me it’s out of the question. I do it on Friday. The Sabbath is there. The world stops.
After the ceremony, Robert John told Oliver, “had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”
Peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns. What would it look like to live, entirely divorced from even the privilege of winning a Nobel Prize. It seems like Robert John estimated the prize very differently from most people; something else mattered to him more. Perhaps it was an understanding of ultimate things—what is the most important thing in life, what matters most, things we usually understand when death is nigh, when time is short.
Perhaps the Sabbath is like speed bumps, preventing life from being overrun by the train of time. It is a reminder to be conscious of time, like a balance by which everything is scaled against eternity. The things that exist in the Sabbath realm are the things that matter in eternity—they will always matter—like family, friends, love, reflection, peace with God and peace with self. Everything else can take a pause, irrelevant for one day.
I’m writing this at the entrance of a Sabbath. For the next 24 hours then, I’m going to live with consciousness of time.
 I’ll use their first names here to make the post more personal instead of academic.
 Read the whole interview with Robert John Aumann here.
Photo by Johnny Loi