Opportunistic learning is the attitude of hungrily and obsessively following promising learning clues, wherever they may lead. It is an active and uncensored form or curiosity. It can easily lead to indiscipline, unreliability and, while each spike lasts, it can cause a kind of tunnel vision like behaviour, increased social avoidance, unhealthy sleep patterns and bad personal hygiene. If pursued wholeheartedly, it’s not a 9 to 5 kind of habit and it can be difficult to incorporate in a standard career, where it may need to be tamed and controlled, but in no way eliminated.
You’re visiting your in-laws for Christmas and you can’t sleep. It’s 3 AM, you’re in bed, the wifi isn’t working and the 4G is not good, so Youtube doesn’t play that well. Desperate for something to help you go to sleep, you remember an audio book you already have on your phone, Stephen Fry’s version and reading of the Greek mythology. You start it, you get captivated by it for a couple of hours, so no sleep right away, but at least it relaxes you, it soothes your mind and rains in your thoughts, and, slowly, you fall into a good deep sleep, to wake up rested and fresh, and late, the next day. The thing you remember instantly and vividly is the powerful realisation you had, while listening to the book, of how many of the fundamental words and concepts in your language today come directly from the names of Greek gods or demigods or other mystical creatures, or, sometimes, from their Roman counterparts. You want to make a list with some of these words, because you have a feeling that seeing them one after another is going to create a powerful impression on anyone reading through them. You start with the wikipedia list of Greek mythological figures and, as you scroll through the hundreds of names, you try to remember words deriving from them, which you then confirm by checking their origin in a dictionary. After a few hours of work, you look at the list, you have 60 or so words, you decide you want at least a hundred. You google for others that have done this for English, you get hits, you get the other 40 from there, as some of those English words are the same in Romanian too, as they have the same origin. As you complete the list, you realise what you want to do with it. You’ll print it on a nice shiny A3, just a vertical list of words, centred in the middle, somber front, no other colours, text or symbols of any sort. You write it, export it as a PDF, put it on a stick, go and print it, take it to the office, find the right place for it and put it up on a wall. It’s over. It’s done. You are now relived, satisfied, free to do the next thing, to do nothing, to do whatever. This one is done. You don’t know what will eventually come out your list, if anything, who will read it, what will they get out of it, will it be useful in any practical way? No way to know, probably not, it’s not directly tied to your job, to your work, to your product, to your revenue. But you wanted to do it, you loved working on it and you felt like you learned something new from it, and that was enough.
That’s one example of opportunist learning. It can be an hour, a day, a week, a year, a decade. When you smell the opportunity to put something new and truly interesting in your mind, you take it, no matter how strangely or unexpectedly it comes to you. When you’re in the mood for a deep dive, you dive. When you feel like exploring the weirder parts of knowledge, you explore. When you feel like canceling a meeting to keep diving, you cancel the meeting. This is where it gets complicated, but getting around this kind of complication is for another time.
The benefits? Something money can’t buy.
How to do it and still have focus? Possible and, in some sense, necessary. Let’s assume that you have one major objective for the next 12 months, and all of your time is spent in responsible learning and work towards that objective. You don’t learn what you feel like learning, you learn those things and those things only that you need in order to make progress towards your objective. This is efficiency, this is discipline, and it’s necessary, but if pushed to extremes it may be demotivating and it may become an enemy to innovation, as in your single minded focus to getting X done you entertain an attitude of narrowing of possibilities. You’re not training yourself to spot and explore the unknown, from the contrary, you are engaged in staying on track, on avoiding all distractions. It’s not easy balancing this mindset with the opportunistic learning mindset, moving back between one paradigm and the other, but I personally think that if you manage to do both, that will lead to the most interesting and effective kind of, let’s call it innovative discipline, a way of delivering, of focusing, but with the ability to question at the same time, to be in the game and outside of the game at once. I don’t have anything more precise that that in the way of advise, I just know it can be done, it’s a matter of trial and error and personal experimentation. I for one try to follow my mood as well. There are days where my mind is all about exploring and I try to take advantage of that, I reschedule and reorganise to make time for it. There are days where I feel like crushing the todo list, like a soldier, and then I use that day for that.