I wrote the rather vague date of Aug. ’10 on the flyleaf of my copy of The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond almost seven years ago. The books is only 350 pages long and I read it at a pace of about 7 pages a day. In reality, I read 20 pages in a year, maybe 50 more about two years later and then revved up to a rather feverish 280 in 2016/early 2017 in order to skid to the finish line just a couple of days ago.
Don’t get me wrong.
I really enjoyed this book.
Maybe it took me a long time to read it because I started it when I was just a sophomore in college. I had so many other things to read and then I started Graduate School and I had even more. Maybe I was just a different person then.
Really, though, I think that is an excuse.
Once I finished grad school, I spent about a month being wildly unproductive and I was about as unhappy as I’ve ever been in my life. It’s not that I’m restless – I love silence and stillness – but I found that without a clear routine or set of objectives, I was catching up on a little too much Netflix and Hulu.
I began to read for 30 minutes at night before bed as a rule and I’m not sure if there is anything else that has changed my life as much.
I remember talking to one of my students one day. At the time, I was working at the University of Missouri College of Engineering and those students were so smart they were often incredibly bored. Because of that, they had a knack for finding some of the most interesting courses at Mizzou. Having been an MU student myself, I remember thinking how sad I was that I hadn’t gotten the chance to take a course on Indigenous Religions, as my student had. This spiraled into a reflection on all of the different academic paths I could have taken and I spent a lot of time lamenting on never being able to learn again for the rest of my life.
Formal schooling was over, so I assumed that I was finished letting the synapses in my brain fire anew.
After roughly 20 minutes of extremely dramatic desolation, I started making a list of all the things I wanted to learn about. This list included history, astronomy, astrology, physics, astrophysics, goddess worship, wiccanism, history of religion, herbalism, american history, native american storytelling, poetry form and on and on and on.
Within another 30 minutes, I had ordered ten books on Amazon.
I am suddenly reminded of Marx’s ideas of Thesis, Antithesis and Synthesis. The basic idea of this is that an idea, ideology, etc. begins as one thing, swings in the completely opposite direction and then eventually balances out until that balance actually begins the cycle anew.
An example of this would be that I began in a state of learning very few new things and feeling that I could never learn again. I moved into a state of trying to learn all the things by buying all the books related to all the things. I then leveled out into a balanced state of studying the things that were of greatest interest to me by delving deeply into those particular topics.
Each time that I finish a book that really catches my imagination, I go into another antithesis state and the cycle starts again.
Anyway, the point is that I learned a lesson. Ultimately, our curiosity and learning is up to us. Even though our education system doesn’t really prepare us to know HOW to learn, that is exactly what we must figure out and it is one of the reasons it took me seven years to finish The Third Chimpanzee. There were so many points of interest that I could branch off into that I became overwhelmed and couldn’t find my way back to the place where I’d started.
We want so badly to be wild and free. It’s an archetype, maybe even better described as a stereotype, that women especially feel is the apex of our personal development. I’ve found, however, that to be free, you have to do a whole lot of boring planning and thinking and note-taking and routine-making. It takes a lot of parameters and self-defined boundaries to break down the walls that others build for you.
This is highly related to the second lesson I learned: sometimes passion alone isn’t enough to finish a project, it takes discipline and some forced dedication.
I already told you that I really enjoyed this book. Jared Diamond has a really great style of writing. He’s funny and has the unique ability to condense complex topics into layman’s terms without sounding dry, but it still took me seven years to finish this book. The simple explanation for this is that I let myself become distracted.
It’s kind of like when you’re trying to stick to a budget, but you really really really want a cold brew from Starbucks. It’s only $3. It’s a drop in the bucket, really.
This was my reasoning every single time I got distracted enough that I felt like I needed to start a new book for awhile just for a “change of pace.” What I really needed was to finish what I’d started, which was never something I was good at. I’m still trying to finish the main story line of Skyrim for god’s sake.
Anyway, the final lesson I learned wasn’t really a lesson but more of a reinforcement of something I’ve been working on for years. Meditation and mindfulness have become so important to me and they extend so far past formal sitting practice. I see mindfulness in everything and this is no exception because when we do not take the time to examine why we do what we do, we end up getting caught up in a lot of meaningless auto-pilot that has nothing to do with the goal we set out on in the first place.
In seven years, I passed by that book so many times. I pulled it off the shelf and sat it by my bed. I even read a few pages every once in awhile, but not once did I ever really wonder why I kept putting it – and every other book, project, etc. – down time and time again. I just never thought it mattered.
All of this can be summed up really well by some of Jared Diamond’s final reflections on the future of the human animal in the Epilogue entitled, “Nothing Learned, and Everything Forgotten?”
“We are the only ones creating our problems, so it’s completely our power to solve them…We don’t need novel, still-to-be invented technologies to solve [them]. We just need more [people] to do many more of the same obvious things.”
This is the same for many of us. We don’t need more books or more syllabi or more topics of study or whatever it is that has YOU distracted. You, I, we just need to focus, commit and get to work on what we’ve already got in our hands at the present.