“The world is a university and everyone in it is a teacher. Make sure when you wake up in the morning, you go to school.” ―T. D. Jakes

Before a surfer catches their first wave, they have to learn how to balance. Building up proprioception, which is the awareness of the body in space, is a journey that we all begin from birth. Through deliberate practice, we develop agility, balance and coordination. As surfers, we navigate an environment that is volatile and constantly changing.  The variables are too numerous to comprehend so we start off with basics, such as laying on our bellies while a broken wave gently pushes us into shore. Eventually, we might kneel on the board. After a few tries, we attempt to stand up. Although we fall over and wipe out moments after, it’s a small accomplishment. If we keep practising, day after day, soon we’ll be paddling out and catching waves with increased confidence and skill. We naturally seek out greater challenges to develop our capability.  

Sometimes, we assume that learning only takes place in a classroom or at a desk—but even if we’re no longer in school, there is always a lesson for us to learn. If we want to make the most of our lives, we can’t give up the pursuit of knowledge after graduation. Learning can take place anywhere—in a conversation with a new friend, on a trip to a new city, in the ocean after getting smashed by a set wave. Learning new skills is a lifelong adventure that takes us to places we never imagined. 

This article explores perspectives on learning, from science, philosophy, religion and, of course, surfing.

The Science of Learning

“Learning life’s lessons is not about making your life perfect, but about seeing life as it was meant to be.” ―Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

When we learn something new, our brains change. Far from this being metaphorical, research into neuroplasticity shows that structural changes occur throughout our lives based on what we practice. Learning new skills is exceptionally good for the brain with studies showing that a large hippocampus—an area of the brain creating up to 700 new brain cells per day—correlates with better health and less chance of neurodegenerative diseases later in life. Exercise is one of the best ways to keep the hippocampus large. Anxiety and junk food shrink it quickly.

What Happens when we Learn?

How do we memorize information? What occurs within the brain when we finally start to master a new skill? It’s a complex process, but it can be explained rather simply.

Essentially, we learn best under moderate stress. This does not mean that someone has to be in a fearful or anxious state of mind to learn—if you have ever been called to present to an audience when you have minimal preparation or subject matter knowledge, you’ll know firsthand that in situations like that, your brain typically goes blank. That’s a freeze response—something that happens to most animals when they’re placed in a threating situation. However, moderate stress can actually be a positive motivator. In order to learn, we need to be in a situation in which the brain has to change in response to stimuli.

Raised cortisol levels can promote learning when we embrace the challenge with a positive attitude. In this circumstance, we have reframed the challenge as an opportunity and become positively engaged, rather than in a state of sympathetic arousal—also called “freeze, fight, flight mode.” Imagine paddling out into a crowded lineup. When a wave comes towards us a freeze response is not to paddle for it because we’re fearful that we’ll fall, of the other surfers also paddling, of not being able to catch it (or all of the above). Staying present and viewing the wave as an opportunity to learn and grow enables us to paddle deliberately and surf to the best of our ability. 

Starting small and increasing our skills incrementally is paramount. We learn best when we are feeling safe and failure is not high stakes. In this state, our brain is in an optimal state for neuroplasticity and for producing new neurons in a process called neurogenesis.

Learning also engages parts of the brain that deal with higher cognitive function, such as the neocortex and cerebellum. Healthy habits, like getting eight hours of sleep, eating well, and sticking to a solid sleep schedule promote neuroplasticity.

The Psychology of Learning

Not all learning takes place in the same type of environment, or through the same process. In fact, there are several basic “types” of learning that we all experience in different scenarios.

Behaviorism is a more passive form of learning. This occurs when we develop a certain behavior in response to an environmental stimulus. Essentially, repeating this behavior and receiving positive reinforcement will result in long term learning. For instance, if someone is paying attention to their coworkers on their first few days at a new job, they’ll slowly start to pick up on behaviors that can help their performance.

On the other hand, cognitive constructivism involves lots of discovery lead by the learner. The learner is then able to assimilate the new information they’ve picked up into their preexisting knowledge base. For example, someone who knows some basic cooking skills might start trying more complex recipes and experimenting in the kitchen. Even though no one is directly teaching them or showing them examples, they’re learning new culinary techniques.

Social constructivism refers to collective learning. Knowledge is constructed in the context of a social situation. A common example of social constructivism in action would be a group discussion about an interesting topic that all the members are hoping to learn more about. Each person will contribute some of their own knowledge to the conversation, and they should all take away some new information, too.

Deliberate Practice

We’ve all heard the saying “practice makes perfect”—but is that the whole story? Is the key to continuous learning and mastering a new skill simply practising? Author and psychologist Anders Ericsson, an expert on the habits and lifestyles of experts in a wide variety of disciplines, says that there is more to it.

Ericsson describes the necessity of “deliberate practice” in his book Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. He doesn’t think that innate talent or mere repetition is the key to real learning. Instead, he argues that the best of the best engage in deliberate practice on a near-daily basis. Through self-awareness or feedback from others, they note specific problems with their own performance and work on improving those particularly weak aspects of their skills. True learning can be uncomfortable—but when we gain radical acceptance of our own flaws, we can improve beyond what we previously imagined was possible.

Philosophers on Learning

“The educated differ from the uneducated as much as the living differ from the dead.” ―Aristotle

Early philosophers held education in high regard. However, like many experts today, they did not believe that people learned solely from educators: they could learn from the natural world, from the people in their lives, and by taking the time and effort to question what they thought they already knew. To ancient philosophers, learning was one of the things that made life worth living.

Aristotle

Aristotle’s famous work On Education may not have survived through the ages in full, but the lessons he has passed down are precious and timeless. Aristotle strongly believed that people needed to master “balanced development,” and that learning was a process that was intended to happen throughout life. If someone did not make an effort to keep learning, they would cease to continue growing and changing for the better. Aristotle felt that lifelong learning was absolutely key to living a fulfilled life.

Aristotle stated that education could come in many different forms. Someone could learn by doing and physically practice a new skill over and over again. They could also learn about more abstract topics by thinking critically. In other words, they could become educated through both “habit” and “reason.”

Aristotle knew that education and learning also brought joy—after all, what’s better than surprising yourself when you are finally able to accomplish something that you never thought you could? Or that moment when you figure out the answer to a question that you’ve been pondering for ages. Many of us associate learning with struggle, because we’re taught that the most important learning takes place in a classroom—but the challenges that learning brings can bring joy as well.

Aristotle was not the only prominent philosopher who held this view of learning. Plato held a similar perspective. In one of his most important works, Republic, he explained that he supported the Socratic method of learning. The Socratic method, developed by the philosopher Socrates, involves asking question after question about a given subject and refusing to accept a dead end answer—in fact, it is intended to help both people in the conversation critically examine their own views in addition to each others.

Overall, ancient philosopher’s placed a high value on education and learning. They knew that a strong passion for learning could enhance the life of an individual and move society forwards, and no matter how old someone got, learning should never stop.

Lifelong Learning

Lifelong learning seems to be promoted as one of the keys to success and happiness by everyone from philosophers like Aristotle and Plato to modern day entrepreneurs and lifestyle gurus. But what exactly is lifelong learning? How does one keep learning if they don’t have someone to direct them on the course?

For some, it can look as simple as making an effort to read for a half hour every day about a subject that interests them. For others, it could mean taking an art class or a language class. For adventurous souls, it might involve taking an extended backpacking trip to work and volunteer in different countries and learn about other cultures firsthand. And for the homebodies, it could mean watching educational documentaries or learning different skills through online courses and videos. Some people might be happiest just diving in and trying something new—they’re the ones who will pick up a board and jump into the ocean without taking a surfing lesson. Everyone learns best in different environments, and it’s up to you to decide how you want to go about it—there are no rules.

Autodidactism

Becoming autodidactic is an approach that can take someone far in life. Basically, this means having the ability to engage in effective self-directed learning—namely being your own teacher. It requires a high level of intrinsic motivation and the drive to practice regularly without someone holding you accountable for it.

The idea that children should be encouraged towards this mode of learning early in life forms the core belief of the Montessori educational theory. Maria Montessori, who began writing about these ideas in the 1890s, believed that children should be able to engage in self-directed learning as part of their education. They should be taught that it is possible to learn through play and be able to spend more time on activities that they are naturally drawn to. Today, Montessori schools all around the world still use curriculums centred around this idea.

Religious Perspectives on Learning

“There is divine beauty in learning…. To learn means to accept the postulate that life did not begin at my birth. Others have been here before me, and I walk in their footsteps.” ―Elie Wiesel

In ancient times, religious centers also often functioned as centers for learning and higher education. It is no surprise that early religious leaders valued education and learning, and often felt that educational undertakings were crucial to leading a spiritual life.

Christianity

Christian teachings proclaim that education in almost any form can help bring one closer to God. Why? Because it is only through learning that people can bring out their God-given talents. Human beings are seen as divine works in progress—in the Christian tradition, we are called to grow and learn in order to fulfill our full potential and carry out God’s plans. Christians are not only encouraged to study the Bible itself, but to read and learn from fellow Christians and study to prepare themselves for whatever vocation they may feel called to.

Islam

Learning is essentially seen as sacred in Islam—devout Muslims are called to read and learn in order to grow closer to Allah. Learning is a divine pursuit: it’s not just a way to gain more knowledge about the world around you. It’s a way to learn more about the creator. Therefore, every Muslim is encouraged to engage in lifelong learning—it is viewed as a way of opening up our eyes to all the wonders that Allah has created.

Hinduism

Hinduism has a somewhat unique perspective on the power of learning. It is seen as essential to having a fulfilling spiritual life, and it is also viewed as the path to achieving the four primary aims of human life: dharma (virtue), artha (wealth), kama (pleasure), and moksha (liberation). Education is necessary if someone ever wishes to rise above their physical body and reach enlightenment. It is said that the educated person experiences a form of spiritual rebirth as they learn more about the world, and education gives one the ability to rise above human attachments.

Buddhism

For Buddhists, learning with both the mind and the heart is of equal importance. In modern education systems, logic and reason are prioritized over emotional growth and questioning ethics, but in the Buddhist tradition, both are seen as priorities. Therefore, there is the potential to learn from any given experience, whether one is sitting down with a book or talking with an old friend.

Learning and Surfing

“Your surfing can get better on every turn, on every wave you catch. Learn to read the ocean better. A big part of my success has been wave knowledge.” —Kelly Slater

Surfing is not an exact science—but it is a unique learning experience. The ocean becomes the teacher, and you have to be patient to learn her lessons. It’s no coincidence that many top surfers take the “student” mindset into other areas of life.

Gerry Lopez

Gerry Lopez is both a world renowned surfer and author of the book Surf is Where You Find It. During the course of Lopez’s surfing career, he had many opportunities to learn from the greats, and he was also able to gain experience in other sports like snowboarding and stand-up paddle boarding. He didn’t stop learning once he had mastered the art of catching waves. He continued to explore his interests, and his career proves the value of approaching new hobbies with the mentality of a lifelong learner. His book Surf Is Where You Find It is not just a memoir about surfing or his other talents. He proves that the key to becoming an expert is to adopt the mindset of the student—always humble and ready to learn.

Kelly Slater

Kelly Slater is often called the greatest surfer of all time—and no one earns a title like that without being open to learning at all times, no matter how far they’ve already gone in their journey. Slater certainly did not have to branch out from surfing in order to succeed—he had already proven to the world that he was the greatest of all time, even from a young age. Yet his curiosity and drive to learn and innovate drove him to explore other paths, too. From developing the technology to create an artificial wave pool to becoming an environmental activist to acting on television to making music, there’s almost nothing he won’t try with an open mind.

Final Thoughts

“Knowledge, like air, is vital to life. Like air, no one should be denied it.” ―Alan Moore

Learning does not mean sitting in a lecture hall and taking notes, or cramming for an exam on a difficult subject. Learning can occur anywhere, and we can learn something through everyone we meet. Yes, learning can mean taking risks and dealing with failure—but if you never get over the fear of wiping out, you’ll never learn how to ride the wave.

Approaching life with the mindset of an autodidact gives one freedom to grow. As with all living organisms, if we’re not growing, we’re dying. Find a path and embrace it. Never stop learning.

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