As created by Sister Corita Kent but expanded and popularized by John Cage, here are some rules words of wisdom which I believe may be helpful to all those who embark on a new learning experience.

After each statement, I will add my own comments for a more complete and up-to-date set.


1. Find a place

Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

The power of retreat. Finding a place to return to, and doing it often, is important for anyone who wants to reflect, grow and/or be creative. That place can be a corner in the library where one sits and studies, or a notebook where one keeps thoughts and insights. Many have praised the merits of journaling, and I add my voice to that chorus. That’s the reason I encourage my students to keep an e-portfolio to document their learning process.

2. Student Duties

General duties of a student – pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

3. Teacher Duties

General duties of a teacher – pull everything out of your students.

Instead of having two seemingly opposing forces, teachers and students, “pulling” from each other, I would change the focus to what one brings to the group and not what one gets from it. I would thus replace 2 with the following Walter Gropius quote:

The mind is like an umbrella – it is most useful when open.

and 3 with:

Be a team player. Collaborate. Many achieve more than one.

4. Everything is an experiment

Consider everything an experiment.

It may sound like a strange thought at first, but if you consider everything (reality included) to be an experiment, you may be able to influence their course. Things are a certain way but there is always space for improvement. Important caveat: improvement means changing things for the benefit of the many, not for one.

5. Self-discipline

Be self-disciplined – this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

Insofar as learning is a process requiring a lot of effort, self-discipline is indispensable. Eventually, self-discipline builds a stronger character. But how one builds self-discipline? Follow someone wiser or smarter whom you admire, means follow their method. Break down their exploits into discrete steps and follow them. You may have to tweak some of them according to your own needs.

6. Mistakes?

Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

As in many things in life, there is no right or wrong answer in the learning process. More importantly, there is not only one answer. Welcome different perspectives and solutions to a problem, even contradictory ones, as many paths leading to the same destination. Now, you may object and say that teachers don’t accept that way of thinking on a test, for example. That’s right, a test is a very specific exercise checking the acquisition of very specific information that will help the learner go forward.

7. Do the work

The only rule is work. If you work, it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all the time who eventually catch on to things.

Have you noticed that number 7 is the only rule? You can “begin anywhere” of course (another inspirational quote from John Cage), but if you choose to begin from number 7, expect the others to somehow unfold from it. This rule has an axiomatic value to it. It is tested and shown to be true in a variety of situations. We accept it, without feeling oppressed, because it is not arbitrarily set by some kind of authority.

8. Create vs analyze

Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

Indeed, there is a time for each task. Assembling and breaking down are opposites and can’t be combined, especially in one’s own work. That’s why we need collaborators, advisors, and mentors. That’s why we need dialogue. The most common example is the composition (thesis, antithesis, synthesis). Composition itself is an assemblage. To avoid confusion, and have a clear idea of the steps to follow think of it as a multi-step process: note taking, constructing an argument, testing its validity, reviewing it again, and putting together all the pieces in a coherent essay. A certain number of drafts may apply.

9. Enjoy!

Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

Hmm. Happy is a tricky word. I wouldn’t use it. Be content instead, grateful and appreciative. And yes, enjoy yourself every step of the way.

10. Breaking the rules

“We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room of X quantities.” (John Cage)

Remember 4 and 6. Most rules are useful up to a point, because they are arbitrarily constructed by some kind of authority. In a society we need to follow rules in order to function properly (law, traffic signs etc). You can’t do, say, or even believe whatever you want. There is a moral responsibility. But in your own learning, problem solving, or creative path you can question, and challenge the validity of rules. Throwing a bunch of X factors to the mix and testing its reactions, you can then propose amendments and updates.


Hints: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything – it might come in handy later.

These were written in the pre-digital era. Today, with so many distractions at hand, time and attention are increasingly protected because they are finite resources. My suggestion for an update here would be:

Stay on task. Focus on one thing at a time and try to finish it before you move on to the next.


Keep being curious.