Brains for free

A photo signed by Einstein to the attention of news reporter Howard K. Smith. It reads, "This gesture you will like, Because it is aimed at all of humanity. A civilian can afford to do what no diplomat would dare."

image: public domain

I stumbled across something this week that made me smile at the mere idea of it.  It’s called Skillshare, and in case you aren’t already savvy to its charms, it’s a community marketplace in which you can “learn anything from anyone.” In short, much like TED, it connects inquisitive people to their subject matter of choice, but it does it through folks in their local communities, opening up an in-person exchange of knowledge.  It basically seeks to make education — in its broadest sense — more democratic and accessible, and by accessible, I mean right around the corner from your house.

Call me easily-led if you want, but it had me at its tag line: “The future belongs to the curious.”  Can I get an amen? 

You could say that the internet, on its own, opens up a wealth of information and places it at our fingertips, and you’d be right.  You could counter that a lot of information on the internet is complete crap, and you’d also be right.  Try looking up any medical symptom under the sun and give me a rough estimate of the accuracy rate of your first 10 search results.  Abysmal, right?  But that’s okay.  Because as with anything, I think there’s been a bit of a pendulum effect in terms of the quality of content on the web.  We started at the far end of one extreme where there was nothing but esoteric data understood only by programmers, then swung wildly across a vast expanse to the other side, filled with a ton of SEO-loaded, nonsensical muck peppered with funny memes and, thankfully, The Oatmeal.  We’ve spent a little while capitulating in a ping pong match of sorts and are finally, many years since the advent of dancing babies, evites and Blue Mountain Arts birthday cards, finding ourselves somewhere in the middle.  I’m excited to dive into the big glass bowl of brain candy that’s emerging in the center and gobble it all up.

Like I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve been trying to dial down my incessant need for crap trivia — like what lipstick Zooey Deschanel is wearing this week, for instance; at the moment, I’m proud to report I have no earthly clue — and make way for something more satisfying.  Sure, there’s always NPR, god love it, and it’s amazing how much more easily one can get pulled into PBS programming once one eliminates a few hundred other channels from her cable lineup (imagine that!) but it’s cool to know there are people out there who want to — and apparently will — offer an unlimited amount of free education to whomever wants it.

In the spirit of sharing cool stuff, here are two websites I can’t get enough of, and if you’re an even remotely curious person at all, you’re bound to find something worth falling headfirst into on one or both of them:

Open Culture is essentially a tremendous brainpower hub linking out to every kind of free online class imaginable — no, no, I’m not talking about schmaltzy “how to make a zillion dollars overnight”-level nonsense; I’m talking about a downloadable “The American Novel Since 1945″ course from Yale, video lectures from a human behavioral biology course at Stanford, and more than 400 others of that ilk.  Apparently, such things are called “MOOC”s — massive open online courses, and multiple startups are emerging from the likes of the guy who invented the Google self-driving car and other brainiacs and mathletes — see edX, Udacity, et al.  Anyway, Open Culture also employs a staff of freelancers who post multiple times a day with cultural gems like rare recordings from legendary musicians, lost interviews with cultural luminaries and random trinkets of geekery you’d have to see for yourself to fully grasp the magic of.

Then there’s Brain Pickings, the personal blog of Maria Popova, an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow and contributor to both Wired UK and The Atlantic.  She calls herself “an interestingness hunter-gatherer and curious mind at large.”  She posts ridiculously fascinating things every day, and of course, her writing is impeccable, unfettered and smart.  I adore everything about her work so much, it’s not even worth wasting energy being envious; I just eat what she dishes out each day and enjoy every speck of it.  The best way I can describe her site is to say it’s like a big plate of bacon-wrapped smartness served with a cocktail of sugar-rimmed creativity.  On second thought, that was terrifically dumb.  Let’s use her words instead:

“It’s our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources — ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration — that we’ve accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas — like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become.”

Yeah.  What she said.  Basically, if I ever meet this woman, I might kiss her square on the mouth.

There’s this great quote from someone named Roger Lincoln:  “There are two rules for success: 1. Never tell everything you know.”  …and it’s brilliant.  In the competitive society in which we live, both professionally and personally, it’s spot-on, and I laughed out loud the first time I saw it.  But wouldn’t it be cool if it didn’t make us laugh?  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we looked at each other after reading it, completely puzzled as to what it meant?  I realize such a reality may never arrive, but the curious little kid in me who’s been taught to share her carrot sticks still likes the notion of it.  And I think it’s doable on a smaller scale: it starts with each of us stepping outside of our silos and sharing our brains with our friends.

The older I get, the more I realize I don’t know.  And while each new revelation of my own lack of knowledge is pretty terrifying, at the same time, it’s kind of not so bad.  When you get down to it, nobody knows everything, but everyone knows something.  So why don’t we share more often?

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2 thoughts on “Brains for free

  1. TED is great, my hubs introduced me to that. Thanks for the reminder and yet another great way to ‘leave the house’ when the kidlets are sleeping. Us SAHMs NEED stimulation that doesn’t always require a babysitter! If you do read my blog, I apologize in advance for the grammar!

    • Dearest Heather! Please forgive my tardiness in replying. Thanks for reading! And I thoroughly enjoyed perusing your blog… in fact, with your permission, I’m totally adopting the phrase “voting with my fork.” :)

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