Once you've talked to Jeremy Gleick about what he calls his daily learning hour, the temptation grows to put "learning hour" in quotes or to upper-case it: The Learning Hour. It feels like an idea that deserves at least as much distinction as many of the smart-phone apps and programs now on the market.
And yet, it is the singular endeavor of this 20-year-old UCLA junior, one that even his friends and family find hard to fathom or adopt as their own. By late fall, he had not missed a day since 2009, already logging more than 1,400 learning hours. (And yes, from the beginning, he has kept careful track.)
So what is the learning hour? It's something Gleick, a neuroscience major, devised while a student at Berkeley High School as the result of a series of "why" questions he asked himself: Why am I going to college? To be successful, to get a career? But why am I doing that? To have a better life? And why am I doing that? To be happy? But why must I happy?
"And I just kept asking 'why' until I couldn't come up with answers anymore," Gleick said. "I think the answer can be different for everyone, and I'm not even sure I know what mine is. But for the moment, I'm taking learning as a substitute. It seems like a good start."
Many of us would stop there or perhaps go forward with whatever we're doing that moves us toward our academic or professional goals. But Gleick upped the ante for himself by committing himself to one full hour a day to learn something absolutely new. Under his self-imposed rules, none of his topics can be part of his school studies or earn him a certificate or any formal recognition. It has to be learning for learning's sake.
Over the years, he has documented his learning hours on such wide-ranging topics and skill-sets as the Aztecs (3 hours), Punic Carthaginian military commander Hannibal Barca (14 hours), the Korean War (4), Confucianism (1), the 700-verse Dharmic scripture Bhagavad Gita (14), voodoo (4), juggling (39), piano (65), astronautics (4), volcanology (1), robotics (2), knife-throwing (1), American sign language (9), guitar (102), card tricks (17) and the American Revolutionary War (27).
Many of his topics would be unfamiliar to most people. Parkour (8 hours), for example, is what Gleick loosely describes as "urban acrobatics," the physical discipline of training to overcome any obstacle in your path — railings, walls, buildings, whatever — by adapting your movements to the environment. At the moment, he is more interested in wushu (28 hours), which is derived from traditional Chinese martial arts.
In one instance, two topics dovetailed when his study of blacksmithing (14 hours) resulted in second-degree burns that made ambidexterity (8 hours) a fortunate thing to have studied.
"I touched some metal I shouldn't have touched," Gleick said, shaking his head at himself. "I couldn't hold a pencil or write with my right hand."
Sometimes Gleick knows ahead of time how he's going to use his learning hour; at other times, he decides in the moment. Occasionally, he'll use his learning hour to study with someone. For example, hypnosis (41 hours) is obviously something he couldn't do without a partner. And speaking of states of mind, yes, occasionally he does fall asleep during his learning hour, but he'll try to figure out how long he's been out and add those minutes on to the hour.
"I figured out a few years ago that if it's late and I'm tired, I won't watch a lecture," he said. "I'll do something physical, like playing guitar or juggling."
If he becomes so engaged in what he's doing that he goes over his hour on a given day, he records the extra time but doesn't count it toward the future. Each day starts fresh with a learning hour to be determined.
His family and friends are in awe of Gleick's stick-to-itiveness. His parents, Nicki Norman and Peter Gleick, said they are proud of their son's curiosity and diligence.
"We've seen that Jeremy's protected time for personal learning seems to not only build valued knowledge and skills but, more importantly, inspires love of learning for its own sake," Norman said.
His friend Lizzy Neiman said Gleick's learning hour was "what attracted me to him in the first place." The two of them were involved in a live-action role-playing and improvisational theater camp, where, in the evenings, "there are absolutely a million things to be doing," from camp activities to talking to interesting people, she said.
"But despite any temptation or distraction, Jeremy would always politely remove himself for an hour, where he'd sit, his headphones securely blocking out the world, while he just learned," Neiman said. "He wouldn't even talk to me about what he was learning!"
She said it was one of the most fascinating — and inspiring — things she'd ever seen.
"In a generation that revels in half-baked attempts and 'just enough' results, Jeremy is a beacon of ambition, intelligence and will to strive for something, rather than settle, that our world desperately needs more of," she said.
Many times, Gleick will take the simple route of finding an online course on a topic he is interested in. "There are entire courses online for free — hundreds of them," he said.
While it isn't so easy to follow hard science courses this way, he said, he has delved into many other topics, an hour at a time. He has his favorites, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychology professor Jeremy Wolfe's "Introduction to Psychology" course. "Easy to follow, funny, fun," Gleick informed his Twitter followers at https://twitter.com/_TheDancingFox_.
Gleick started tweeting at the request of friends curious about his learning hour, but so far, no one he knows of has followed in his footsteps with his commitment. He understands. At first, even he was on and off with the learning hour, but since he got in the swing, he hasn't missed a day in more than three years.
Before Gleick began his learning-hour regimen in high school, he was what he described as a "straightforward, stereotypical smarter kid" who was interested in math and computers. Then he fell in with an intellectually diverse group of students who were already making their mark in the sciences, history, music, writing, acting and other fields.
"My first reaction was 'I've got to catch up,'" he said. He set out to at least have a working knowledge of what his friends were doing. "It just kind of spiraled from there," he said.
Earlier this year, Gleick's quest drew the attention of the New York Times, which wrote a brief article about him in its Education Life supplement, with the headline "Renaissance Man." And certainly, like any good Renaissance man, he views college as a huge opportunity to get a feel for many fields of study and knowledge, which can be difficult outside an institution of higher learning. While he currently is on track to do neuroscience research or be a professor — he is particularly interested in neuroprostheses, artificial eyes or limbs that are wired into a person's own nervous system — he wouldn't be surprised if he ended up doing martial arts performance or being an actor or writing a novel.
Speaking of which, in November, he took part in NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, developing a story that was near-future sci-fi, reflecting his interest in the genre.
How does he find time to try writing a novel in one month's time on top of his studies and his daily learning hour?
"I tend to be very busy, but it's almost entirely self-driven," he said. "In a way, I have a lot of free time. I'm just very good at spending it."