Think, Learn, Succeed

Dr. Caroline Leaf

Today, most people can access vast amounts of information, yet few people know how to process this information and use it to be successful at school, work, and life. There is an ever increasing gap between the “what” (information) and the “how” (the management of information). Our ability to process and understand information has been both encouraged and challenged by the technological revolution. We now have the world at our fingertips, yet, paradoxically, more and more of us live solitary, futile lives. As a result, problems in schools, universities, corporations, institutions, and personal lives abound as we lose sight of the power of mindsets, how to think, and how to learn. This is a global “mental health” issue!

Learning difficulties, inept socialization, mental ill-health, and loneliness, which is purported to be nearing epidemic proportions globally and causing more deaths annually than obesity, compel us to reevaluate our thinking skills and rediscover the notion of community wisdom and the purpose of learning, as opposed to merely gaining pieces of random information to get an A that will make our parents proud or give us a hollow sense of self-worth.

A 140-character Twitter post, for instance, can consume inordinate amounts of time, yet no deep thinking ensues: no true satisfaction of mind is attained. Do we understand the damage this is doing? Can we counter it?

When we gather information like puzzle pieces without putting the puzzle together, intellectual growth is stifled. This is a crisis of quantity over quality, and the consequences are frighteningly evident in society. The developed world currently faces a purported ADHD epidemic, for instance, where thousands of people, young and old, struggle to concentrate, to learn, to remember, and to think deeply. Thousands of individuals of all ages are being incorrectly labeled as biologically wanting and are medicated with brain damaging substances. Rather than asking what is wrong with our society and the kind of thinking it promotes, we place the blame squarely on an individual’s shoulders—or more to the point, their brain—divorcing him or her from the context of daily life.

Indeed, today we are quick to label issues as a disease or disorder rather than applying wisdom and examining what is actually happening in our societies, from the big picture to the detail. In such an environment, it is easy to fear the perils of automation and artificial intelligence (AI), which are no longer merely the concern of Silicon Valley trend watchers—even scholars at Oxford University are making dire predictions. Yet according to a growing body of research, we are asking the wrong questions. The problem is not so much about automation taking over our jobs (and our minds) but rather automation (including seeing humans as biological automatons, or dehumanization) changing how we think—and obviously, not always for the better.

How is the technological revolution affecting our ability to think, learn, socialize, and manage the normal day-to-day life of being human? Indeed, what actually constitutes “work” in this day and age? Is the way we’re working, working? What are we learning? What is the point of education? Is our thinking changing?

For example, using digital platforms such as tablets and laptops for reading may make us more inclined to focus on concrete details rather than interpreting information more abstractly. This affects reading comprehension and problem-solving.

According to the World Economic Forum, in a 2013 survey of twelve thousand professionals by the Harvard Business Review, around 50 percent said they felt their job had no “meaning and significance.” What makes knowledge significant? What makes work a vocation? Why do we generally ask people what they do but not why they do it? How do we get from A, knowledge, to B, significance? Although such questions may seem daunting, compelling us to find the needle of wisdom in a haystack of information, we ask these questions because we are human.

We need to recognize that neither society nor our brains are the only factors in determining what we do with our lives. We need to also recognize that our own thoughts can hinder our ability to think, learn, and succeed beyond the limits of any society. Have you ever scrolled through Instagram, paralyzed by the feeling that your life somehow doesn’t “measure up”? Have you ever felt swamped at work, a crazy “devil wears Prada” boss shouting down at you in an endless, meaningless cycle, because you felt that was the kind of job a responsible adult had to have, that this was what you were supposed to do? Have you ever felt lost preparing for an exam you knew you were going to fail? Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy! Do you just feel like every day you are being hit by something else you need to deal with?

You may feel you don’t have any power over your life or circumstances, but you do! Your ability to think, feel, and choose is innately powerful and resilient—you have a mind that is more potent than all the smartphones on the planet combined! You can move from survival to success—and it all begins in your mind. In recognizing both the impact of your sociocultural context and your own thoughts, you can redefine your past, reimagine your present, and realize your future.

But how do we do this? How can we harness the power of our thoughts to think deeply, learn powerfully, and deal with the problems of the fast-paced digital age in order to lead lives filled with meaning? How do we achieve success? For over three decades, I have worked with thousands of families, children, teenagers, and adults diagnosed with ADHD, autism, dementias, and other learning and emotional difficulties, teaching them how to resolve their challenges and improve their thinking. My experience, both professionally and personally, as well as the testimonies from individuals who have watched my TV shows and read my other books, reveal that, if you teach people how to think deeply, they can do anything they put their minds to. They can learn how to learn.

Regardless of what anyone has told you, you can learn. You can succeed at life. When you learn how to learn, exploring, understanding, and mastering the art of mental self-care, you can go beyond mindfulness, developing a whole mind lifestyle that allows you to transform your neighborhood, your community, your nation, and your world.

Excerpted from Think, Learn, Succeed by Dr. Caroline Leaf. Used by permission of Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, copyright © 2018. All rights to this material are reserved. Materials are not to be distributed to other web locations for retrieval, published in other media, or mirrored at other sites without permission from Baker Publishing Group.

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