"Hello there.
What do you seek in these shelves?"

Ajax Penumbra, Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour bookstore.

In search of serendipity

A year ago, out of necessity more than anything else, I started going to the library again. I've spent most of my time at the American Library in Paris, nestled on a quiet street in the shadow of the The Eiffel Tower. You have to crane your neck to see the top of the tall brown (yes it's brown) structure as you approach the entrance.

Inside, a small library over three storeys, always a bit too warm and always with ropey wifi, but home to a strange and varied collection of books. Many of them are secondhand out-of-print titles from the 1980s and 1990s, a goldmine of half-forgotten ideas ripe for new eyes.

One of my favourite things to do is to pick a room and start browsing the shelves. The spine of one book might catch my eye, the title of another might pique my curiosity. Before long I am sat down with a pile of books that I didn't know existed just five minutes before.

And off I go, down the rabbit hole. Some of my best ideas and most unexpected connections have come from these afternoons with these half-forgotten books.

This serendipity is magical and it's something the Internet can't replicate so easily. All the knowledge is there - but it's built to be easily found if you know what you're looking for. The closest we come to replicating the same feeling is a late night Wikipedia binge or simple curation: using Maria Popova, Alexis Madrigal and Ryan Holiday to create the serendipity for us.

That's problem one.

Unlocking knowledge

We have the Library of Alexandria at our fingertips but it doesn't feel like we're getting any smarter. It would be easy to blame 'short attention spans' or our 'celebrity obsessed culture' or the 'decline' of books but none of those are really the problem.

The knowledge is all there, accumulated over 13,000 years of civilisation but it feels locked away somehow, as if it's out of reach. It's trapped behind glass etched with the dreaded word "boring".

Go onto Vine and search for the word "history". The results are the collected attitude of teenagers and twenty-somethings to the subject. It doesn't make pretty viewing.

That's problem two.

The brain you deserve

I've realised just how many gaps there are in my knowledge; how well I could use my brain if only I fed it properly!

We have this misconception that somehow our brains are fixed entities and that some people's brains are better than others. You hear it in phrases like "I'm not a technical person", "I don't have a brain for languages" and "I could never get my head around history". I think this is both untrue and dangerous.

To quote the author Robert Greene in his book Mastery, "people get the mind and quality of brain that they deserve through their actions in life". In other words, you are what you eat - and what you read, what you watch and who you surround yourself with.

If you choose to use your free time to play Candy Crush Saga, watch Friends re-runs and read Buzzfeed, you will get the mind that comes from that. But if you choose to push your brain, to make it work hard, to keep learning new things, to read difficult books, to consider challenging ideas then, like the muscles on your body, it grows stronger and more connective.

But it's much more rewarding to read Buzzfeed.

That's problem three.

Figuring out a solution

In 2014 I'm going to work hard to change this part of my life. I'm going to read regularly, and with intention. I'm going to study things for the sake of studying them, letting serendipity spin her magic.

And I want to bring other people along for the ride. Learning something new and unexpected about our world and understanding a concept which at one time seemed out of reach are just the most wonderful feelings. I want to help more people feel as good as I do when I learn something new.

I'd like you to meet delve - it's a web video channel I'm building for people who want to take their learning seriously. It's not a course, or a qualification, and it's not for people who want to study something particular. It's for people who love learning for the sake of learning, who want to feed their mind the most beautiful and unexpected feasts. Right now I'm testing it out on Tumblr and Medium.

It's not the solution to these three problems - it's an attempt to figure them out: how to unlock complex knowledge so it flies free and far, and how to recreate a delightful serendipity even on the Internet, and how to help others inspire their curiosity.

We're starting small and it's going to take a long time and lots of mistakes to get this right, particularly in a tricky medium like video. The first project has just gone online: an essay on Leonardo Da Vinci and the secret of creativity. There'll be something new every month.

If you're interested in learning unexpected new things too then sign up here.

Finally, here's why this really matters. The future demands our generation know more and understand better. The challenges that we will need to solve in decades to come will be too complex to neglect this part of our lives. I've opened up the comments on this one, I'd love to know what you think.



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