Jan Plan for Life: Three ways to keep learning in the new year

January, for most people is the start of the new year with new resolutions, goals and desk calendars. But for me, it will always be Jan Plan – an opportunity to keep learning year after year.

What’s Jan Plan? Some other schools might call it J-Term or January Term. Regardless of what you call it, it is magical. As an undergrad, I was fortunate enough to attend Colby College where students would spend each January focusing on one course only, learning as much as possible about that subject, before starting the regular semester.

During this term, I studied topics from “Men and Women in American Film in the 1960’s,” to “Ecological Field Study to Anguilla” in the British West Indies. My friends participated in furniture making courses, EMT courses or “Chemistry for Life” – a course dedicated to making the science of everyday life engaging. Many of these courses were ungraded, putting the emphasis on learning.

My first post-graduation month of January felt strange. I was in the “real world” but I wasn’t spending my month focused on learning something new. Even now, a few years later, I know January isn’t different from any other month, but it feels like it should be.

The lack of Jan Plan in my life is a great reminder to spend time trying to learn something new. While it’s impossible to take a month away to spend time learning about a topic (though I would certainly welcome the opportunity), here are some simple ways to keep learning:

  1. Watch TED Talks
    Have you met TED? If not, do so immediately! Each week, TED releases new talks which are incredibly thought-provoking. You might not learn something new every time, but you will definitely walk away thinking differently. TED Talks range from ad man Rory Sutherland’s exploration of real and perceived value (with interesting marketing context) to Arianna Huffington sharing her belief that success is found on our mattresses (and why) and finally Steve Jobs’ famous commencement speech, “How to live before you die,” which seems timely given the week’s events. I can easily spend hours learning via TED Talks and luckily, there are at least a few new ones each week!
  2. Tap your network
    Grab a friend/colleague who’s passionate about something you’re interested in and spend some time learning from them! The beauty is that you can learn about anything; whether it’s independent movies, cooking Italian cuisine or salsa dancing while also getting to know the person better. Hopefully you can teach them something too!
  3. Volunteer!
    I’m always surprised by the amount I learn when about myself and the world around me by helping others. Fortunately for me, Communispace recognizes the importance of giving back and gives us time to do better in our (non-virtual) communities – and boy, do a lot of organizations benefit. Whatever your interest, I’m sure you can find an organization that needs your help.

I realize now that the point of Jan Plan wasn’t just to focus on one thing for a month, but to learn how to become a lifelong learner. I’d love to hear the ways you continue to learn – especially if it happens to be a January escape to study something in a warmer climate! And of course, happy Jan Plan everyone!


7 thoughts on “Jan Plan for Life: Three ways to keep learning in the new year

  1. I attended Middlebury and we also had J-term. We always thought J-term was a way to get in more skiing at the Snow Bowl, but as a non-skier, I found it to be an opportunity to really focus on one subject. One of the toughest–and easily one of the best–courses I took while at Midd was a J-term class on the Vietnam War. Man, we threw ourselves into that!

    Thanks for this. With yet another snowstorm bearing down on us, it’s easy to start to hate January.

    My Jan Plan is to work with my kids on their reading–do a little literary course on Roald Dahl or some other writers where we read the books, watch the movies and discuss the similarities & differences.

  2. Jeanne,

    A fellow NESCAC’er! Thanks for sharing — your Vietnam War class sounds interesting. I, like you am not a skiier (despite my best attempts), so while my friends where off skiing at Sugarloaf, I was watching Barbarella (one bizarre movie, if you ask me).

    I love your Roald Dahl Jan Plan idea. James and the Giant Peach, Matilda and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — there are so many great books/movies. I’m sure your kids will have a blast!


  3. TED is such a good way to improve your life, 20 minutes at a time. I try to watch one or two a week. Some of my favorites (all avail on YouTube):

    The Tragedy of Suburbia: James Howard Kunstler

    Why Societies Collapse: Jared Diamond

    On Spaghetti Sauce (Choice and Happiness): Malcolm Gladwell

    Exploring the Frontiers of Happiness: Dan Gilbert

    Another thing I’ve started to do recently is listen to Great Courses. For around $20-30 you can download hours and hours of courses by some of the best college professors in the world, on topics like quantum physics, great books, the lessons of history, psychology, and business. There’s not better way to improve yourself during your 20-30 minute drive each day than by listening to some of these amazing speakers.


  4. Hi Elisa, I am going to share this post. Future Chefs just had an important conversation about lifetime learning and beginners mind, how to nurture that kind of mindset in our students (who really are beginners) and help them understand that they never stop learning, that mastery of one thing is a chance to begin something new etc.

    Thanks, also, to Jeanne and Chris for the good options. One of the hardest things about starting a non profit has been having less time to learn and do new things but I’m going to schedule in time for TED talks!

    Happy New Year!

  5. Hi Elisa, I will share this for the great and very doable tips on how to keep our minds growing and learning. I am a TED fan too. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement.
    Hope to see you soon at some future Future Chefs event.
    Happy Jan Plan,

  6. Hi Eliza: Thanks for helping to spread the word about TEDtalks and similar sites. A small but growing number of us are calling attention to the innovative and inspiring videos on sites like TED. I took my love for talks one step further by creating videotalks.org — a robust site which links to more than 58 websites. Just thought you and your readers would be interested in knowing about it. Keep up the good blogging! Jim Melfi

  7. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments and kind words!

    Chris, thanks for sharing the TED talks. They’re certainly interesting – I especially like Malcolm Gladwell’s talk (I’ve always been a fan of chunky tomato sauce). My dad also shared that he listens to lectures to keep learning. He’s found the University section of iTunes’ podcasts especially helpful and the best part is – they’re free!

    Toni – thank you for sharing my post with Boston’s Future Chefs. I hope it helps inspire them as much as they’ve inspired me!

    Pat – I look forward to seeing you at a FC event soon!

    Jim – Videotalks.org is a great resource! Thank you for developing it and introducing me and other Verbatim readers to it.

    Although January comes to an end today, I hope you all have a great and educational year!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *