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How to Achieve Personal Growth and Balance III - the life of the mind

Updated on April 2, 2011

To stop learning is to die

"Nobody has all the answers. Knowing that you do not know everything is far wiser than thinking that you know a lot when you really don't." - from The Tao of Leadership by John Heider (Bantam,1986)

We are learning creatures. From the moment of birth, and even before birth, we learn. We only stop learning when we die, and some would say, not even then. I believe that to stop learning is to die. If we start to see every situation we are in as a learning opportunity we can change the way we see the world. And then there are some special things we can do to add to the learning. These are, in no particular order, reading, visualizing, planning and writing.

These activities are, of course, not the only ways to nourish the mind. There are other ways to learn. These four, though, seems to be the most accessible to most people.

Small illustration scanned from the book Rodwell, G. F.: South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe (1877). Image via Wikipedia
Small illustration scanned from the book Rodwell, G. F.: South by East: Notes of Travel in Southern Europe (1877). Image via Wikipedia


“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” – Charles W. Eliot, who was president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, the longest term in the University’s history.

Reading books is a wonderful way of opening ourselves to the lives, ideas, thoughts and experiences of others. Reading opens the mind and stimulates thinking, even if you are just reading a light novel for relaxation, that novel is made up of words which the author has strung together in a particular way that arises out of her own experience and learning, and so we touch her spirit through her words. Reading any writings of the great spiritual masters opens our minds to their insights. It doesn’t matter too much what you read, Zane Gray or Plato, Mills and Boone or Camus, there is something to learn, something to let you encounter another person who you could not encounter physically, and that is a huge opportunity. I am not saying that all writings are equal, though. There of course are texts that are deeper and more challenging, what I am saying is that any reading is better than no reading, and usually people who start reading the lighter stuff, if they want to grow will naturally start to move on to deeper stuff. It’s how you approach the reading that is important also. Just a moment’s thought about the book in your hands can be a revelation of deeper worlds – how is it we can read the words, how did the writer know that to put this thought in this way would be so meaningful to me? Isn’t it amazing that for the expenditure of relatively small amount of money I can get in touch with the thoughts and feelings of someone who lives very far from me in both time and space? A book, even a Mills and Boone, is a small miracle of communication.

However, there is a limit even to books. “Books are good enough in their own way, but they are a mighty bloodless substitute for life,” said writer Robert Louis Stevenson, who left the world a goodly number of books himself.

“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.” – Sir Richard Steele, founder of the magazine The Tatler in 1709 and of the magazine The Spectator two years later

Visualisation of galaxy positions in the 6dF survey. [Anglo-Australian Observatory] Image from
Visualisation of galaxy positions in the 6dF survey. [Anglo-Australian Observatory] Image from


“Creative visualization is the technique of using your imagination to create what you want in your life.” – Shakti Gawain, in her book Creative Visualization.

Much has been written in recent years about the Law of Attraction, and I have to admit here to a certain degree of skepticism about it, simply because the Law of Attraction people seem to see it only as a way to attract wealth. Maybe I’m being simplistic about that but that’s how it comes across very often. I think that creative visualization is a deeper process of really opening your mind, your imagination, to what is possible, and what is possible is almost infinite. If, after sincerely looking at all the possibilities revealed through your studying and meditating (which we will explore in the next section) you decide that you really want to be fabulously wealthy, that’s OK, but not necessarily the end of the story.

The key to visualisation’s power and place in learning is the imagination. One of the benefits of reading is that it stimulates the imagination. As Napoleon said, “The human race is governed by its imagination.” Visualisation enables a person to unlock that power, to start to see what no-one else has ever seen, to go where no-one else has ever gone. Anatole France, great French writer who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1921, said, “To know is nothing at all; to imagine is everything.” He also said, “To accomplish great things, we must dream as well as act.” The key in that quotation is that accomplishment requires both dreaming and acting – just dreaming alone will not do it. And acting without dreaming will tend to be empty, as Macbeth said:

“...a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” (Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Macbeth, Act 5 Scene 5)

And such action will end up in the sorry state that Macbeth himself did, as he said later in the same scene:

“I gin to be aweary of the sun, And wish the estate o' the world were now undone.

Covey, in the Seven Habits, puts it as the second of the seven habits: “Begin with the end in mind.” In order to find the “end” which one seeks, he proposes a visualisation exercise: imagine you are attending your own funeral and listening to four eulogists, one from your family, one from your friends, one from your work or profession and one from your community. What would you want each one of them to be saying about you? These things represent the “end” for you, the purpose of your life and acting. If you get clarity about this through visualisation, and then act upon it, your life will not be like that “tale told by an idiot.”

E.B. White with his dog Minnie. Image from Wikipedia
E.B. White with his dog Minnie. Image from Wikipedia
Time Management Matrix. from "First Things First."
Time Management Matrix. from "First Things First."


“I get up every morning determined to both change the world and have one hell of a good time. Sometimes this makes planning my day difficult.” – E.B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little .

If we want to get “there” from “here” we need to plan, and planning is a mental exercise, an imaginative exercise. We plan, then circumstances change and make our plans useless, or at least of lesser value than we thought they had, and then we have to learn from that and plan again. As Dwight D. Eisenhower said, “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” In other word, the mental effort and discipline involved in the planning process is essential if we are to learn from mistakes and problems.

Planning is at least partly a process of sifting through the possibilities and making choices, as E.B. White hinted at in the quotation above. Covey and his co-authors in First Things First propose what they call the “Time Management Matrix.” In this matrix there are four quadrants determined by the four factors: what is important, what is not important, what is urgent and what is not urgent. Importance is determined by whether an activity “will contribute to our overall objectives and give richness and meaning to Life” or not. Urgency is determined by whether or not there is a deadline approaching before which the activity must be completed. They point out also that often urgency and busyness can be an addiction. We get addicted to the adrenalin rush of dealing with crises, and even get a high from being seen as the “fixer”, the one who sorts things out, the knight in shining armour who rescues the beautiful damsel from the jaws of the fire-breathing dragon.

But often dealing with crises detracts us from focussing on what is really important. We spend so much time fighting the fires of crisis that we neglect the really important things in our lives, those things that, if we did pay attention to them, would give us the most satisfaction, provide the most meaning and fulfilment. These are the things that are not urgent but very important, the things that contribute to the “end” which we should always keep in mind.

As Lester R. Bittel, author of What Every Supervisor Should Know (1968), said: “Good plans shape good decisions. That's why good planning helps to make elusive dreams come true.”

St. Augustine in His Cell, by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, around 1490-1494. It is housed in the Uffizi, in Florence.Imge via Wikipedia
St. Augustine in His Cell, by the Italian Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli, around 1490-1494. It is housed in the Uffizi, in Florence.Imge via Wikipedia
The Rosetta Stone in British Museum. 21-11-2007 photo by Hans Hillewaert. Image via Wikipdeia
The Rosetta Stone in British Museum. 21-11-2007 photo by Hans Hillewaert. Image via Wikipdeia


“An artist exudes vitality; a spiritual person exudes peace. But, says Katagiri, behind the peace of the spiritual person is tremendous liveliness and spontaneity.” From Writing Down the Bones , by Natalie Goldberg (1986).

Writing is a great way to learn about yourself and others. Whatever form your writing takes it will reflect your experiences, your thoughts, your heart. As Christina Baldwin states, “Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.”

“You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair; the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. You can come to the act with your fists clenched and your eyes narrowed, ready to kick ass and take down names. You can come to it because you want a girl to marry you or because you want to change the world. Come to it any way but lightly. Let me say it again: you must not come lightly to the blank page.” - Stephen King (1947 - ), On Writing: A Memoir of the Craf t, 2000.

Like reading, writing is a great way to exercise your mind. It is a way to link and clarify thoughts and feelings but must be approached seriously, as King observed. Or as Erica Jong (The Fear of Flying) noted: “Everyone has talent. What is rare is the courage to follow that talent to the dark place where it leads.”

Writing is a creative way to personal growth.

I’m writing this in Pretoria, South Africa, as summer is slowly giving way to autumn and a gentle rain intermittently falls onto the already wet grass and bends the leaves of the monstera deliciosa down until they touch the grass, and I think of getting my daughter Caitlin ready for school this morning (she has just started Grade 1) and then taking her to the school. When I dropped her there this morning I stood and watched her, unseen by her, as she walked slowly towards the other children in the playground, a little hesitant, a little shy, with the long blonde plait I had made in her hair hanging down her back and her school shorts almost covering her dainty little knees, and I wondered about how she experiences school – is it an adventure? Is she fearful of what is going to happen today at school? She seems so delicate, so vulnerable, it hurts to leave her there. And yet I know that as the seasons come and go, she is carrying the next stage of humanity in her small body, she is the rain coming down on the next generation, while I am approaching my autumn and I cannot be there for her always. I have to let go. And that is what comes out in my writing and I’m glad to be writing this in an article about personal growth. And I’m learning something about myself and about my daughter as I write. And it’s painful and beautiful at the same time. So is growth.

Reading on

This Hub is part of a five-part series on balance and growth.

The other four Hubs can be found here:

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010


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    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Micky - thanks my brotherman! You are kind.

      Love and peace


    • tonymac04 profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony McGregor 

      7 years ago from South Africa

      Dimitris - I agree that it is an indicator of something, but the "what" escapes me? Perhaps the stuff I write is too serious? Whatever, I'll not let it get to me especially when I have good friends like you coming around, for which I thank you.

      Love and peace


    • Micky Dee profile image

      Micky Dee 

      7 years ago

      Learning is living. Life is growing, evolving, moving, adapting. Learning is all of that. We have to keep "peering out from our souls" to be. Thank you Tony.

      This is a great write and emphasizes life. God bless!

    • De Greek profile image

      De Greek 

      7 years ago from UK

      Perhaps you should take the absence of other comments as an undicator of something? :-)))


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