A Woodland Adventure
Issue 1 - Cal Newport's adventure studying approach
Welcome to today's issue of the Curiosity Journal. I'm grateful to have you here, especially for the first issue of this email newsletter.
If you peruse the archive of the CJ, you'll find posts on productivity, learning and personal development that I've migrated from my website, The Curiosity Concept. Feel free to check out what's there when you're done here.
Now, hold tight to your device because, in this inaugural issue of the CJ, we're taking things outside...
Exactly one week ago today, I submitted my master's dissertation.
I am beyond happy to be done with it—researching and writing for the past 5 months has been a tough experience. When the UK entered lockdown at the end of March, I still had three 4,000-word essays and the 10,000-word dissertation to complete.
Usually, the bright side of being a student whose coursework is essay-based is that you don’t have to stay cooped up in a library, chained to a desk. I frequently take my reading and writing material to coffee shops and work from there.
There's something about the background hum of indistinguishable, overlapping chatter, the whistle of the coffee machine and, of course, the rich scent of freshly ground coffee beans. Not forgetting the chill vibes of coffeehouse acoustic indie-pop. You become enveloped in a world of productivity and creativity.
But when life came to a halt and coffee shops closed, the bright side got a little dimmer. Escaping to this world was no longer an option and there’s only so much of it that my favourite online noise generator can recreate.
One thing we have been able to do throughout these strange times is to go outdoors (to different extents). Going on a walk is one of those outdoor activities that I often take for granted but every time I do it, I feel re-energised and my mind clears.
I studied my LLB and LLM at the University of Warwick and when I lived on campus, I loved walking through the woodland, around the green spaces, flowerbeds and anywhere there was water. As I did this, I would often think through an essay I was writing or revise for an exam using active recall.
So, I've been taking my school work beyond the confines of the classroom & library for a while. During the lockdown, I walked to a nearby lake and through my neighbourhood, especially in those moments where my work was frustrating.
(Even just walking through my town’s shopping centre helped, although my mind might not have been totally focused on work…)
One of the best aspects of this approach is that it reminds you your studies are not the be-all and end-all—there is an entire world that exists outside of your assignments and exams and it’s more than okay to take time out to take it in.
Walking and thinking through an idea can bring back life to a subject that seems very dead if the usual context for when you engage with it is through a screen or piece of paper.
I was listening to Cal Newport’s new-ish podcast, Deep Questions—which I highly recommend—and he mentioned a phrase that perfectly captures the point of working beyond the classroom: Adventure studying.
For people who aren’t students, it’s adventure working.
Context is key to the adventure studying/working approach. In a 2009 blog post, Newport wrote,
the setting for your academic work is as important as your methods.
I learned this well as a Warwick student. I have an aversion to Warwick’s library. It has this fluorescent lighting that gives everything a bit of a yellow tinge, which is tiring. And with university libraries and study spaces, there is nothing inspiring or adventurous about rows of cubicles filled with sleep-deprived students running on late-night caffeine, typing aggressively.
An ineffective setting can hurt effective study methods. So, I generally avoided the library for most of my second and third years—even my master’s year.
In another post, Newport lays out the motivations for adventure studying/working:
Changing your context makes the work seem fresh and allows you to tackle it with new creativity and energy.
Going somewhere exotic separates you from common distraction urges.
I’m discussing adventure studying/working in today’s issue because of the first point. I need some new creativity and energy to think about my next steps now that I'm no longer at law school. I've been contemplating: Should I jump straight into a PhD? Do I want to pursue an academic career? Or should I plunge myself into the just-as-daunting non-academic job hunt? What can I do now that the opportunities I thought this master's would make available for me dried up during lockdown?
You can probably tell I've been spiralling a bit.
But the idea of adventure studying/working inspired me. I thought, if I'm going to spiral, it would be much more fun among nature, breathing in the fresh air, with birds chirping, little squirrels dashing between the trees, and families building tree forts.
So, that's what I did. I thought through my career options by adventure working in the woods yesterday:
Inside my backpack was a water bottle, umbrella and notepad in case I had a brilliant flash of insight I needed to capture immediately. I didn't bring headphones. Ideally, I wouldn't have brought my phone, either. But, I needed a map to get to this woodland, which I'd never visited before.
When you find yourself hitting a brick wall whilst studying or trying to figure out your post-uni life, “taking a break” doesn't cut it sometimes. Especially when you dread returning to the same desk or room after the break.
Fortunately, adventure studying/working isn’t a “break”. It’s a way to generate cognitive excitement and inject fun into your work. You might not solve your problem, but at least you can make progress on it in a setting you enjoy.
I can’t wait to adventure study/work again, when the sky is clearer or when autumn—the best season, IMO—has fully arrived. Yesterday was a grey day, with the sun just peeking from behind the clouds. The air in the wood was thick with humidity, but it had that amazingly deep, earthy smell that comes right after a spell of rain.
There was very little spiralling here.
Adventure studying/working isn’t just for woodland trail walking—you can do it in any setting that would be adventurous for you. One of Newport's readers in 2012 sent him a picture of their night-time study session on a rooftop they snuck onto.
But for now, even a simple walk outside can be your adventure.
Let me know what you think—will you try adventure studying/working the next time you're tackling a tricky task?
Until Thursday, onwards and upwards.
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