In elementary school, summer was the time of year everyone would count down to. After nine straight months of mandated work, the idea of it coming to a ceasefire for three whole months seemed to be a weight off of everyone’s tense and tired shoulders. It was the time to hang out, relax, and try doing all those things you didn’t have time to do during the school year. The time to learn that instrument, ride a bike, and embrace the things you do when there’s no wrong way to be spending your time.
Flash forward to age 20 – it’s the summer before my junior year of undergraduate education at Boston University, and I’m counting down the days until I can go back to school.
After my freshman year, I stayed in Boston working on campus and living on a friend’s couch in the 90° weather. Sounds grueling, right? Actually, it was the most freeing period of time in my life thus far. I had a daily routine, I was working on multiple creative projects with a network of other filmmakers and storytellers, and time was my friend. But the key element to last summer was being surrounded by the people I was closest with. I had a support group and a community of common thinkers within walking distance, and our intellectual fulfillment was rooted in conversation. We didn’t just read, view, and think on our own – we shared with each other and learned together.
This summer, I decided to migrate to New York City and hone in on studying a singular craft (as opposed to my multiple subject focus at my liberal arts university packed with extracurriculars): acting at a well known conservatory. This sounds like a much more creative and intellectually fulfilling summer than my previous one, right? Well, as it turned out, I became increasingly restless focusing on one singular thing, and found it boring being surrounded only by people focused on a common and singular area of expertise. I even found myself unable to write, because I wasn’t surrounded by people and things to write about (even in New York City). About 5 weeks in, I decided I needed to take a step back from that type of learning environment.
On the same weekend I decided to take that step, four of the people I’m closest with came to visit me. For the first time all summer, I was surrounded by the likeminded community of people that keep me energized during the school year. As opposed to the conservatory of actors I’d been around, this group of people had a diverse background of interests and expertise. Much like last summer and this past school year, I once again found intellectual fulfillment through conversation. After their visit, I was inspired enough to write again. A few weeks later, I went back to Boston for a few days and once again spent time with a similar community of people. I wasn’t there taking classes like I usually am, I didn’t have to go to work or rehearsal or attend a meeting – yet I felt that same sense of productivity and intellectual gratification. And once again, I found myself wanting to write.
After my time back in Boston, I decided to spend some time on my own and back at home. I had enough creative juice in my system from my Boston recharge that I found myself able to keep writing, and thus I felt I was spending my time effectively. But after over a week of being physically removed from that conversational community, I once again found myself scatterbrained and restless, gasping for any molecule of inspiration in the much more distilled air.
Inspiration, knowledge, growth – the laundry list of things people often search for in educational and creative work environments – are all generated from conversation. We can read and study all day long, but we take this information to the next level when we talk about it with other people. In fact, the most effective way to learn information is by teaching and explaining it to others.
One of my favorite things about studying subjects like Film and Journalism at an institute of higher education is that I’m constantly required to create tangible projects rooted in telling important and compelling stories – and the peers and professors that inspire me to keep creating are always the ones that crave this type of diverse, conversational environment.
After being plucked from this type of community for the first time in two years, I found myself frustrated and mentally stifled all summer. I recently watched a Ted Talk where novelist John Green talks about his experience learning through communities. His first experience in an immersive “community of learners” was when he transferred to a boarding school. “A lot of the learning that I did… was about what happened outside of the classroom.” He continued learning through these same types of communities in college and beyond, until he wrote a book and quit his job. Despite his creative and financial success and the endless reading he finally had time to do, he felt the emptiness of not having a learning community to keep you thinking and on your toes. “It was miserable. I felt like I was creating my own hurdles and jumping over them myself,” he explained.
Conversation is the key to unlocking the learning and thinking that keep us energized, inspired, and happy. If you surround yourself with a community of people that allow you to learn, challenge you to analyze, and inspire you to create, you may find that anywhere can feel like the right place to be. The good news for me and all of my like-minded peers is that every summer turns to fall, and we return home to the community that nurtures our best work, thoughts, and even selves.