Enjoy a rabbit hole

When someone goes “down the rabbit hole,” it means there’s a certain topic, activity, or thing that intrigues them. Consequently, they want to explore this topic, activity, or thing further so they can learn more about it.

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Follow the path and jump in

When’s the last time that you learned something just to learn it, choosing to do so because the subject intrigued you or simply sounded like fun? Or how about a time when you were so engrossed by a new topic that it stopped you from falling asleep because you were interested to learn just one more thing that night?

These situations are constant occurrences for me, and they satisfy me every time they pop up. By carving out the time to allow them to happen and by generally being curious about new things, I’ve stumbled onto one of the key things in life that makes me tick: the process of learning and exploring.

I’m a continual learner and my mind doesn’t rest much, except maybe when I’m engaged in an outdoor activity like hiking or cycling and there’s nothing else to compete for my interest in that moment. Because of my active mind, I spend a lot of my time doing new things that often turn into hobbies. The majority of them come from going down a rabbit hole on a particular topic to discover what’s there and then branching off in all directions to learn about the things that are connected to it. I’m constantly having “I never knew that!” moments of discovery, and that’s what’s energizing about the process.

What do a watch and an airplane have in common?

Let’s go down a rabbit hole together, shall we? It will give you a great idea of what I’m referring to above…

The IWC Pilot’s Chronograph Spitfire watch shown here is one of my favorite watches. Some day maybe I’ll own one, but right now life has many other much higher priorities (like paying college bills for two kids!). So for now I’ll admire it from afar, because it’s much too rich for my blood.

IWC Pilot Chronograph Spitfire
Photo by IWC

A few years ago, I stumbled deeply into the hobby of mechanical watches and horology. I’ve always liked unique and purposeful watches, but it was only within the last few years that I started spending large amounts of time learning about their history, how they work, different types of design, and the genius that goes into creating the complications of a mechanical watch. Complications are the features on a watch face (other than telling the time) often in the form of sub-dials such as displaying the day/date, the phase of the moon, chronograph timer functionality, etc. The micro-mechanical complexity of some of the complications I’ve learned about is fascinating, and some of the most complicated watches can have over 1,000 parts inside. If you want to be amazed (trust me!) by one great example of a super-complicated watch, check out the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600. You’ll be amazed that all of its features are done mechanically.

When I picked up this hobby, it dawned on me that I’ve always been interested in watches, going all the way back to when I was a little kid. I received my first mechanical watch from my parents for my First Communion celebration, and I remember winding it up before bed that night and just listening to it tick until I fell asleep. I wondered what was happening inside of the case to make it work, and after taking up this hobby, now I know! Although the watch band is long gone, I still have the watch body and it still works.

Watches are the perfect combination and intersection of art, function, design, and ingenuity. Since I like those four things, that’s the reason why I like to learn about the models that I’m interested in and how they work. So much so that when I bought a Seiko mechanical watch two years ago that was running about 20 seconds fast per day, I learned how to open it, I used an iOS app and a microphone to measure the rate at which it was ticking, and then I adjusted it to run slower. A watch has a micro-mechanical “heart beat”, and it can be measured and regulated to correct timing errors. It’s basically the same principle as a human getting a pacemaker to help their heart beat correctly. After several days of fiddling with the Seiko watch, I was able to adjust it to be just a few seconds away from perfect per day, which is pretty darn good for an inexpensive mechanical watch. So that story shows how deep I went down the rabbit hole of watchmaking and mechanics to understand it and be able to act on it. I went up, down, left, and right with the topic and enjoyed every minute of it. Great hobby!

Returning to the Spitfire watch, I liked it and decided to read about how IWC designed and built it. Then I peeked my head into another rabbit hole by wondering “Why, specifically, did they choose to focus on this plane?” The watch is named after the plane and there’s an etching of it on the case back. I knew IWC had a long heritage of making pilot’s watches since the 1930’s, but why pay homage to this specific plane? And then I completely fell into the hole…

IWC Pilot’s Chronograph Spitfire case back
Photo by IWC

I began researching the Spitfire and discovered its significance as a game changing single-seat British fighter plane developed in the 1930’s that saw extensive use in World War II and beyond. It first became prominent for the key role it played in the Battle of Britain from July to October 1940, where the advancing German military was turned back from invading Britain after advancing across Europe in all directions. The Royal Air Force’s Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane planes ensured British success, but it was the Spitfire that captured the imagination of its pilots and the public and became a symbol to the world of resistance, freedom, and engineering superiority. It’s reputation and history as an iconic warplane that turned back the encroaching German military were proudly sealed.

But knowing the above wasn’t enough for me. I was intrigued, and began searching for some type of documentary about the Spitfire. Lo and behold, I quickly found one on Netflix called “Spitfire – The Plane That Saved the World” and immediately watched it. It’s a great profile about the plane, those who flew it, why it’s so special, and the place it earned in history. Great story!

With that history in place, the reason IWC created their Spitfire line of watches was clear. They did it to pay homage to the iconic plane in the spirit of IWC’s legacy with aviation and pilot’s watches (and let’s be honest, it’s also a great marketing framework for them). So after all that, I had my answer to the question “Why did IWC choose the Spitfire?”

The commitment of IWC to the Spitfire is significant, so much so that they sponsored a fascinating and unique flight expedition to take a beautifully restored version of the plane called the “Silver Spitfire” on a first of its type around the world flight. The entire expedition is documented on IWC’s website here and also here, as well as a dedicated website to the months-long expedition. It was interesting to see how hard the Silver Spitfire team and IWC worked to keep the memory of the Spitfire and what it means alive.

Was I done? Not yet, there was one more step! The hole went deeper because having seen the Spitfire Netflix documentary and learning about the IWC flight expedition, I then became curious to learn more about the aspects of World War II that I was not entirely familiar with. I sucked my wife into it too, and now we’re watching “World War II in Colour” on Netflix to fill in our knowledge gaps about that pivotal time in world history. Then…I’ll be done! 🙂

Find a hole of your own

All of the above resulted from a watch and some curiosity, and it’s a perfect example of what I mean by enjoying a rabbit hole. I was intrigued and totally enjoyed the learning experience at each turn that it took, and I now have a lot of new knowledge that will lead me to other things (which always makes me a richer person). There was also the bonus of answering my original question about the Spitfire watch as well!

For me, the fun of these deep dives is the discovery process itself. What will I find? What will I learn? What will it lead to? Are there new hobbies there that interest me? It’s intriguing to see how many things are interconnected and how they branch out in so many ways.

Life is hard and we all need a break from time to time. Try going down a rabbit hole for yourself just for the pure enjoyment of the process. Start by picking a subject that you’re interested in but haven’t had the time to explore yet, and start digging around on it. Use the internet, go to the library, read magazines, or use whatever method of research you prefer. To better focus on and enjoy the process, maybe try it when nobody else is home to minimize distractions, or use a rainy day when you have nothing else pressing to do. Let the process carry you, enjoy the paths and sidetracks that you diverge onto.

I would bet that after you try this a few times, you’ll see that it’s not necessarily the destination, it’s the journey. Enjoy the ride!

Review: MasterClass, and its unique draw that no other learning platform offers

Don’t let a piece of you die

Here’s a short story…

Back in 2012, I was going through a tough time at work. We all occasionally have those difficult times and they tend to come in waves, and wow…this was quite a wave! Horrendous workload, mounting deadlines, ongoing layoffs, and some difficult people combined to make it a rough environment to deal with.

I tend to be a “heads down” type of person when things gets tough. I dig in and push hard to get through whatever’s happening, and I aim for the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the work circumstances above typically lead to long hours, less time with family, poor sleep, a lot of stress, and no time for anything but….work.

Looking back at that time it’s clear that I was physically exhausted, but there was also something else happening emotionally that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I didn’t realize what was bothering me until I emerged from the fog many months later in 2013. The answer was that I was spending all of my available time on work and I completely paused my hobbies, learning, and creative activities. Since I’m an active, creative, continual learner, this was really hurting me and I didn’t realize how much at the time.

During your life, you’re fortunate if you experience a few truly meaningful moments of epiphany. Many people don’t. I’m referring to those moments of sudden insight that stop you in your tracks, reset you, and alter you as a person to point you in a new direction that truly affects your life. The situation above was an epiphany for me.

On the day in 2013 when I realized what I had slowly given up throughout the previous year, I made a promise to myself to:

  1. Never lose sight of “me” again
  2. Never stop learning

Related to #2, I believe that when you lose your curiosity about the world and your drive for continual learning that a piece of you “dies”. Part of what makes us grow as people is constant learning, experiencing new things, seeing new horizons, and meeting our goals. I learned through my experience that this is an essential part of who I am, so I can’t lose sight of that again.

Fast forward over the years since then and I’ve kept my promise to myself. I’ve happily explored the paths that my curiosity and learning have taken me down by seeing new places, doing many new things, and acquiring new knowledge and skills along the way. I’ve learned from many different sources and people over the years, and I’ve shared the best of those with others around me so they could benefit as well.

The short story above about the importance of continuous learning brings me to the subject of this article, which is MasterClass.

What is MasterClass?

MasterClass.com is a premium learning platform with an impressive list of instructors who you’re sure to recognize. Luminaries include Ron Howard, Wolfgang Puck, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Martin Scorsese, Annie Leibovitz, Judy Blume, Natalie Portman, Carlos Santana, Malcolm Gladwell, James Patterson, Steph Curry and many more. These people are true masters in their field.

From the accomplished names above and many others listed on the MasterClass website, it’s easy to conclude that the subject matter is quite varied, and this is one of the main things that immediately attracted me to MasterClass. The current list of learning categories includes the following (with multiple master instructors in each category):

  • Film & TV
  • Music & Entertainment
  • Culinary Arts
  • Writing
  • Business, Politics & Society
  • Sports & Games
  • Design, Photography, & Fashion
  • Science & Technology
  • Lifestyle

The content on MasterClass is exclusive to their platform. You won’t find it on other learning websites, YouTube, in books, etc.

I’ve found the classes to be fun, engaging, insightful, and valuable. That’s exactly what a learning platform should be! It should excite and engage you in the learning process so that you’re left wanting more.

As of February 2020 when I wrote this, the cost of one course on MasterClass is typically $90, and I was originally planning to sign up for just the one course I was interested in. You can make a case that the $90 cost is worth it because of the high quality, but there’s a better offer that I opted for instead. For $180, you get full access to all of the classes for one full year. Looking through their catalog and instructor list, I saw many classes that I would take if I had access to them, so I opted for the one year all-access subscription instead.

Once you join a single class or an annual subscription, you can watch the class videos on your laptop through the MasterClass website, and there are also apps for iOS, Android, and streaming TV boxes (e.g., Apple TV) if you want to watch on a large screen TV.

Many of the classes have what I’ll call “light” assignments at the end of some of the lessons. These exercises are meant to reinforce the main points of the lesson and in some cases also practice what you’ve learned. You can choose to do the assignments or not, but I found them valuable so I completed them. Some classes, like Malcolm Gladwell’s, have a more sophisticated “end project” in addition to the assignments for each lesson.

You can join MasterClass, start a course, and progress through lessons any time and at your own pace. There are no set start and stop dates.

Finally, one other thing worth mentioning is that MasterClass Gift Cards are available for your favorite learner on your shopping list. The gift of learning is a great gift indeed!

Why pay for this content?

I’ve been focusing on my writing more seriously in recent years, and one of the first classes I started was Malcolm Gladwell’s “Teaching Writing”. I mentioned this to one of my friends and he asked “Why would you pay for that? There are so many online learning platforms and university writing classes available that you can use for free.”

That’s true, and in fact I’ve tried some of them. As you might expect, I found that the quality and consistency is hit or miss. Some have been quite good, but others consisted of poor content, poor instructors, or were recorded with shaky video and terrible audio that made them unwatchable.

So why pay?

My answer is that MasterClass has a different and specific draw than other classes on the internet produced by people who I don’t know. The draw is that MasterClass courses are taught by well known masters in their field whose work I’ve read, listened to, seen in movies, etc. I have a direct connection to what they’ve done because I enjoy and respect their work. If you’re a long time fan of one of the instructors then you’ve likely read or seen many of their works in the past, which means your connection to them could span a significant period of time in your life.

The point is that there’s great value in a strong connection between instructor and student that achieves the core purpose of any learning platform, which is to engage you. In the particular case of MasterClass, you know the work of these instructors, you like it, and you’re drawn to what they do and how they do it. Those facts can engage you more deeply in their courses and therefore you’ll hopefully get more value out of them. That engagement, and the quality of the instructors and content, are the core value proposition for the cost of MasterClass.

Just to be clear, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with taking classes and learning from people who you don’t know. We all do it every day. I just wanted to mention that that’s not the premise of MasterClass.

One final thought on this before moving on. There’s also great value in learning from people who have “been there” because they carry with them a lifetime of experience and insight that beginner instructors simply don’t have. The MasterClass instructors deliver their content with carefully crafted structure, and their statements carry impact. They know the message they want to deliver, and it comes across clearly and concisely. For example, I can’t tell you the number of times I pressed ‘pause’ during Malcolm Gladwell’s videos so that I could write down a valuable “gold nugget” thought that I knew I would want to refer to in the future. This is not just glossy content with a price slapped on it because of a famous name. It’s truly insightful.

What do you get for the price?

Regardless of whether you spend $90 per course or $180 for the all-access pass for one year, the quality of the material is the same. You can read about the details and sample some of the content for yourself on the Masterclass website, so here I’ll summarize just the highlights from my perspective:

  • The classes are taught by masters in their field.
  • The production of the class videos is excellent with high quality audio and video.
  • Consistently high quality of content. The learning material does not disappoint.
  • The classes are well structured, and each typically contains about 20 lessons that average about 10 minutes in length per lesson (with some being as long as 20 minutes). This structure makes the content easily digestible, especially if you’re on the go and you only have limited amounts of time to watch lessons here and there.
  • There are downloadable PDF files available for most of the classes with relevant details for each lesson in that class. What’s in these PDF’s is unique to each class, so there’s no single format or content structure. Often they’ll link out to further materials available on the internet from the instructor (e.g., Malcolm Gladwell linked out to several of his long-form articles written for New Yorker magazine to support the points in certain lessons).
  • You can participate in community discussion boards on the MasterClass website where attendees discuss the class, the assignments, and start new discussion threads of their own.
  • There’s an extensive list of supplemental articles related to the courses written by the MasterClass editorial board. This is an extra bonus to membership beyond the classes themselves and there’s so much great reading to discover there…
  • Mobile apps are available for all platforms.

The bottom line

In summary, MasterClass is great concept with luminary instructors providing high quality content in a strong, consistent, easy to use learning platform available on all types of devices. For those interested in the subject matter available, it’s a treasure trove of insight into the minds and work of these masters in their field.

I can comfortably recommend MasterClass to those thinking about trying it. The main tip that I would offer to you is to thoroughly review their course catalog before you sign up to determine if you might be interested in taking more than one class. If you’re interested in more than one, then most certainly the $180 all-access pass for one year is worth it for you. Enjoy your learning experience, and have fun with it!