Category Archives: Personal Development

The serendipity of irrelevant reading

From biblical theologian Wesley Hill in First Things:

Irrelevant reading is the sort of reading you do when you pick up a book that, you fear, has nothing whatever to say to your present concern, the thing that’s driving you to want to read in the first place. Say you’re a teacher and you want to learn more about your craft. You may pick up Ken Bain’s marvelous book What the Best College Teachers Do and read it dutifully, annotating the margins and writing pieces of advice to yourself about next year’s lesson plans. But then, on your nightstand, say, you plop Chaim Potok’s novel The Promise down, since you’ve told yourself you’d read it ever since finishing its prequel The Chosen a couple of years ago. Late one night, you stay up and finish it. And you read that gripping scene in the yeshiva where the protagonist Reuven is quizzed mercilessly about arcana from the Talmud, and suddenly, you see not only the kind of teacher you need to be (Socratic, inspiring, relishing the mysterious complexity of your subject) but also find the inspiration you need to finish that next lecture. Your supposedly irrelevant fiction reading becomes more, or at least as, important to you as your allegedly more relevant textbook. And you grasp intuitively what my friend Luke Neff once put into a pithy saying: “Cultural omnivores make the best teachers.”

. . . Not all reading should be “irrelevant.” Some should be assiduous study of the key texts in one’s field. Other reading, the especially pleasurable kind, should be purely recreational. But when one is reading widely, there’s a special kind of delight that emerges when an evidently immaterial book suddenly intersects with what you most need to know in that moment. There’s no telling when such a moment may arrive, so it’s best to keep up a habit of irrelevant reading.

I sometimes tell my students the most important reading they’ll do for one of my classes at the seminary where I teach may well be the reading I never thought to assign.

MORE: “In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

Life guidance from Edward O. Wilson: ‘Search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression’


Edward O. Wilson, 2003

Edward O. Wilson is of course most famous as the seminal thinker, author, scientist, and figure in the field of sociobiology, which he defined in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Although there are many valid criticisms to be made, and that have been made, of the scientific reductionism that is built into sociobiology, this doesn’t mean Wilson isn’t a fascinating and inspiring figure in his own way, and these qualities come out beautifully in a recent interview that he gave to the Harvard Gazette.

The conversation ends on a high note as Wilson reflects on his lifelong excitement over the field of biology and offers some piercingly excellent advice — framed in terms of science but applicable on a wider basis — for students and young people in search of a life calling:

Q: What is most exciting about your field right now?

A: I haven’t changed since I was a 17-year-old entering the University of Alabama. I’m still basically a boy who’s excited by what’s going on. We are on a little-known planet. We have knowledge of two million species, but for the vast majority we know only the name and a little bit of the anatomy. We don’t know anything at all about their biology. There is conservatively at least eight million species in all, and it’s probably much more than that because of the bacteria and archaea and microorganisms we’re just beginning to explore. The number of species remaining to be discovered could easily go into the tens of millions.

. . . Q: What lessons can a young student starting out today, looking at your career and thinking, “I want to make an impact like that” — what lessons can he or she extract from your life?

A: It almost sounds trite, you hear it so often, but you don’t see enough of it in college-age students, and that is to acquire a passion. You probably already have one, but if you haven’t got one, search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression. With reference to biology and science, do the opposite of the military dictum and march away from the sound of guns. Don’t get too enamored by what’s happening right at this moment and science heroes doing great things currently. Learn from them, but think further down the line: Move to an area where you can be a pioneer.

MORE: “For E. O. Wilson, Wonders Never Cease


Photo by Jim Harrison (PLoS) [CC-BY-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Alan Watts on choosing your life’s work: Forget the money, follow your deep desire

What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like? … [When counseling graduating students who ask for career advice,] I always ask the question, “What would you do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?” … If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living — that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way … See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children, to do the same thing … And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?

Hat tip to Brain Pickings