What the Hell Do I Do with My Brain Now?

Like most good Jehovah’s Witnesses, I had pretty good study habits. Even though they were in service of a whack-o set of doctrines, I still learned a lot about world history and Western civilization in general. For that, at least, I’m thankful. Once I left, though, those *cough* useful habits could have atrophied, and I think that would have been unfortunate.

How to keep my brain fed? College wasn’t an option and, anyway, I’d had my fill of institutional learning. So I found ways to hack my education for free before it was a “thing." I thought I’d share some of my discoveries with you. 

Leaving the cult, I had to trade a set of jacked-up, but easy, certainties for a life of anxious, but authentic, not-knowing. I also realized that I need to rethink the way I think. As a J-Dubber, I’d been trained to filter all information through an apocalyptic-millennialist lens; upon leaving, I had to create a whole new worldview from the ground up. Enter Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. She describes this labor of love as: “a record of my own becoming as a person—intellectually, creatively, spiritually—and an inquiry into how to live and what it means to lead a good life.” Her blog is a humanities course in itself.

Popova brings such thinkers as William James, Thoreau, Emerson and Goethe back from the dead to talk about the ongoing process of waking up and staying awake so as to live life to its full potential. This is not your usual New Age fruit cup. It’s more like getting practical advice from a wise old grandpa we wished we'd had, but didn’t. Taking a break from heady 19th century philosophy, she also reports on lovely children’s books you’ll want for yourself, by poet Ted Hughes, designer Saul Bass, playwright Joseph Pintauro, novelist Daniel Handler, of course, Maurice Sendak and much, much more. 

Watchtower publications have an answer for every Big Question in the world. (They just happen to be mostly wrong.) But what happens when people who are actually smart take a stab at them? That’s the premise of the Edge, whose mission is to “arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.” For example, ornithologist Richard Prum talks about Duck Sex, Aesthetic Evolution and the Origin of Beauty. Each year, they bring these brainiacs together in a forum to take on one big-burrito topic, such as what we *should* be worried about and what their most dangerous ideas are.

If you’re sick of religion but still want to explore paths where meaning, values and spirituality intersect, subscribe to this podcast. Host Krista Tippett sits down for one-hour-ish-long conversations with people like banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck, astrophysicist Mario Livio, vulnerability guru Brené Brown and Zen star Thich Nhat Hanh to talk about the meaning of it all in simple, thought-provoking ways. She also had a great sit-down with Maria Popova (which, in turn, hipped me to her blog).

Want to learn philosophy but you’re afraid of all the big words? This ongoing project from Stephen West takes on the history of philosophy from the ancient Greeks to today using opinionated humor and real-life application—and it's all very accessible, even for non-college-educated people like me. He recommends (and I agree) that you start at the beginning and work forward chronologically, because each episode, as with the story of philosophy itself, builds on what came before. Unfortunately, his site’s archive structure doesn’t make that easy, so I’ll give you a hand.

Alec Baldwin has a surprising gift for gabbing with people who’ve worked hard to made their mark on the world, getting them to dish about the things that make them real, make them human. Taken as a whole, for me, these interviews are like a mentorship program as I scrape together the crumbs of my own life to leave behind something that says I was here, a gift that the next generation can use and maybe grow from.  His talks with magician Penn Jillette, musician Paul Simon, New Yorker magazine editor David Remnick and This American Life’s Ira Glass are insightful, entertaining and inspiring. Check out his interview with Billy Joel for a surprisingly dirty version of "Just the Way You Are."

Want to know how the world works in easy, snackable chunks? The animators and writers over in Munich-based Kurzgesagt (German for “in a nutshell”) produce 5-minute-or-so infographicky videos that demontsrate topics like Is War Over? What is Life? Everything You Need to Know about Planet Earth and Are You Alone in the Universe?

Enough said.

Well, that's a start. You’ve probably got a few sources of worldly wisdom of your own. Drop them in the comments so everyone can see!