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When I first started working with troubled youth in schools, I had very little experience and hadn't yet finished college. I knew that the turnover rate at my job was high, and I had doubts about how long I might last.

One student used to taunt the new employees, saying that he would surely outlast us even though he would only be staying for a few more months. I had no clue, really, how I was supposed to "deal" with these students, especially if they "got out of hand." I remember one day watching a more confident colleague take a tough gang member into the office and give him a real verbal whipping. He literally screamed at the kid (who was so well known for his crimes that when he was moved from a city 40 miles away for treatment in our city; the local police already knew him by name). Through the office window I watched as the gang member kept his eyes on the floor and trembled as the verbal thrashing continued. I wasn't sure whether he trembled from respect or barely controlled rage. When my colleague emerged, he muttered to me as he passed, "It's the only language they understand."

Anna Mary Robertson Moses was a self-directed learner. She was born in 1860, right before the American Civil War, and she lived to be 101 years old. So her life spanned from James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, through 21 presidents of the United States, to John F. Kennedy. Toward the latter part of her long and fruitful life—in her 70s, when others have passed away or retired or given up learning—she taught herself to paint.

Learning involves action.

Sure, a person can sit around thinking about the universe, and he or she might learn something. For example, some of Einstein’s discoveries began with thought experiments. But is this an example of inactive learning? No. Thinking is an action too. All kinds of stuff is happening in your brain and body as you think. Neurons are firing, chemicals are coursing through your body, your posture and breathing are often affected by what you think, and often your posture and breathing influence how you think. I had a wiry art professor who claimed that thinking hard burned more calories than anything. Who was I to argue with a man who made his living sitting at an easel? I imagined him saying, like Fezzik in The Princess Bride, “I don’t even exercise!” In my then overweight body, I wondered for a moment if I just didn’t think hard enough. I was quickly distracted from that thought by the thought of lunch.

So learning involves some kind of behavior,