Bill Clinton: Never Stop Learning

Bill Clinton: I think the most important thing that I have learned is that there's more to learn. That we should – that we should all be hungry for a lifetime. I mean, for example, at my next birthday I'll be 68. All the great scientific discoveries made by all the great geniuses were largely made when they were in their 20s and 30s. And yet I became, about two years ago, obsessed with particle physics and I was determined to understand it before I died. I could not have done that if I hadn't learned to read when I was young. If I hadn't had the opportunity to study science courses in my high school, and I lived in the second poorest state in the United States, which most people my age in my state did not have. I happened to go to a bigger high school with people who understood we had to get good science and math teachers there.

And if I hadn't gone to, in my case, Georgetown University, which was a Jesuit University, and I hadn't been subject to the kind of rigors that the Jesuits imposed which made me realize that however much I thought I knew and however smart I was I didn't know very much and I wasn't very smart. I had a lot to learn. So that's the most important thing I learned that your brain is a gift. And we now know that people well into their late 60s and 70s can form new neural networks. So that even though your brain begins to shrink in your 30s, and does throughout your life, since none of us ever use even close to half of our brainpower we got a lot left and we will on our last day on earth we'll have a lot left.

So, the idea that we now know, as a scientific measure because of all the brain scanning technology, that we can form these networks and that we form them best, we're most likely to form new neural networks later in life by learning something new. So if I said I was interested in particle physics and also in astrophysics, and I'm trying to figure out what it means that we've located 20 planets outside our solar system in the last five years that seem to have enough density and be far enough away from their sons that they might be able to support life. That may be the answer to the Russia Ukraine problem; an attack from outer space will immediately unite us all.

Members of Congress in the U.S. will immediately start hugging each other and singing "Kumbaya." But anyway, I can form new neural networks doing that because I don't know anything about it, or I didn't when I started. A theoretical physicist would do better going to Suzuki piano lessons with his grandchild or her grandchild and just playing if you knew nothing about music. But this is an incredible thing that the most important thing I learned is that it's important to keep on learning. That you should stay hungry and that the greatest gift can be even as your body begins to fail if your minds still working you need to use it.

Look, I have always said this; in the history of my country only two governors of very small states have ever been elected president. A man named Franklin Pierce, the governor of New Hampshire in 1852 who was picked just because he was the most inoffensive person around as we headed toward the Civil War. He was a very good man by the way and underrated as a person but his presidency was a failure because he couldn't hold the country together, and me. And I always told people that I considered the fact that I was the governor of a very small state and the last generation, part of the last generation of Americans to grow up without a television to be one of the reasons that I did get elected president. We didn't get a TV until I was almost ten years old. And we didn't get a computer till my daughter was about four years old.

So, I grew up in an oral culture of storytelling and I was raised by highly intelligent people, most of whom had very limited formal education. But they were highly intelligent. And I was taught to listen and to observe and to pay attention and to listen to other people's stories. I was taught that everybody's got a story. I was taught that every life had some inherently interesting part of it but that most people can't get it out. And if they could get it out, if everybody could tell their story it would be interesting. And around the dinner table at my great uncle's house, for example, who spent a lot of time raising me when my mother was widowed by the time I was born, and my great uncle was the smartest guy in our family. I bet his IQ was 185 and he had like no formal education but he could literally have you in tears in three minutes talking about some totally otherwise non-descript person in our hometown and telling the story of their lives. Just laughing, crying, he was a genius.

So, before--if you were a kid around the table--before you could tell a story you had to be able to listen to one. And we would be asked, the children after somebody told a story at lunch or dinner, did you understand the story? And if you said yes then you would be asked okay what did you hear? After you proved that you could listen and recount what you heard then you could tell a story, but not until. And I think that you can teach people first the big fact. Our differences are important. They make life interesting. But since nobody is capable of being in possession of the whole truth about anything, our common humanity matters more. So you owe everybody a certain presumption of respect until they do something to forfeit it, and you should be listening. And we should teach people that. We should teach people how other people view the world differently from us, how other people have experienced life differently from us. It's a discipline. It's a learned gift and it's part of some cultures and not part of others. I grew up in a highly segregated, racially segregated southern town with a grandfather who ran a grocery store where most of his customers were African-Americans. So I grew up knowing people that most white kids didn't know. And I learned, just - nobody had to tell me, I learned that intelligence was evenly distributed. I learned that dignity was something shared by all people. I just learned it. I deserve no credit for it. I was raised in a certain way.

I think that all that can be taught. I also think that I agree with what you said, but I think there's another skill that needs to be taught. That you can't necessarily learn even if you're a computer whiz or if you're a news or political junkie and you read 50 blogs a day. And that is how to organize all that you know. I mean one of the reasons--I should be interviewing you today. One of the reasons that I love your columns and I love your commentary is that you help people to synthesize things that they know, sort of, that is you may write a column or do a commentary and not state one single fact that most of your listeners or readers don't already know, but they haven't put it together as you have. And we live in a time where an eight-year-old can get on the computer and find out in 30 seconds things that I had to go to university to learn, right? It's pretty scary, but it's true. That doesn't mean that the eight-year-old understands the significance that whatever that is in terms of 15 other things. So I think getting along with other people is important, but I also think sympathizing ability is important. Otherwise you could take everything you read – I mean just look at what's on the news every day or what's in the newspaper it's like the political equivalent of chaos theory in physics. How do you connect the dots? So I think learning to deal with other people and then learning to connect the dots are the two great mega educational skills we need to impart in every country at every level of development.

Bill Clinton on the most important lesson he's learned.

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