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The Studious servant - 1871 by Theodule Ribot

“Studiositas [diligence] means especially this: that a person resists the nearly inescapable temptation to indiscipline with all the power of selfless self-protection, that he radically closes off the inner space of his life against the pressingly unruly pseudo-reality of empty sounds and sights - in order that, through and only through this asceticism of perception, he might safeguard or recoup that which truly constitutes man's living existence: to perceive the reality of God and of creation and to shape himself and the world by the truth that discloses itself only in silence.”

  • Josef Pieper, A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart

What is Studiousness?

All people have a natural desire for knowledge. Studiousness is the virtue that moderates our appetite for knowledge so that it is directed toward good and noble ends.

Colloquially, studiousness is thought of as simply having a strong work ethic with respect to study. Commonly, it is not necessarily seen as a virtue, or as connected to wisdom, but as spending a lot of time and effort to learn technical and descriptive facts about a subject matter.

On the contrary, studiousness is a way of pursuing knowledge that is characterized by diligence, discipline, and a sense of order. It falls under the virtue of temperance because it controls our appetite for knowledge, directing it away from distractedness, idle and flitting curiosity, and toward the constant, consistent, prolonged, and deeper engagement with an object of study, so that we may come to know it with depth and fullness, and therefore in truth.

Studiousness must be distinguished from curiosity, which is a quality of being interested in many different things. We often think that curiosity is good in itself, and give pride of place to trying new foods and pursuits, travelling, and learning about a multitude of topics. However, when we look more closely, it can be good or bad, depending upon how we engage in it, and what uses we put it towards. Curiosity is healthy when we are curious about things that pertain to our well-being, and in a way that is conducive to our ability to know and understand. It is misguided when it is freewheeling and aimed at knowing things that harm us. We can easily trick ourselves into thinking that we are learning a great deal by going an inch deep into a wide range of subjects, or that we are people who are very open and cultured by being indiscriminate about the things we watch, or try to experience. Yet, if our desire to know is animated by either this desire to seem to be knowledgeable by knowing very little about many things, or the desire to appear to be open to things by having an attitude of laissez faire indifference, then we are in fact not edifying ourselves, becoming more open or wise, but more vain, shallow, and ignorant.

On the other hand, we have many examples of being overly studious. There are people who spend too much time studying, become consumed and obsessed with their object of study, and have no time for friends or family. We can easily become awkward in conversation because they think so much about their field of interest that it colours all of their thoughts. We can develop a kind of tunnel vision, where we end up applying the language and logic of this perspective to other domains of knowledge or aspects of life, to which they do not readily apply.

Ultimately, knowledge is a good and to desire it for its own sake is a great source of freedom, because it liberates us from our lower desires that seek to enslave us to the pursuit of knowledge as a tool to control, or for the sake of prestige. True happiness and the height of sagacity comes through engaging in diligent, disciplined, and ordered study characterized by an ardent love to seek and know the truth, for it is good in itself. This love of wisdom (philo-sophia) and the contemplation of the truth is where the desiring heart, mind and soul come to rest in peace and joy.

Written by: Peter Copeland

Interview on Studiousness with Geoffrey Woollard

How do you define study as a virtue?

Thomas Aquinas links study to our desire for knowledge. Much has been written about a healthy habit of study, in contrast with unbridled curiosity and getting lost going down rabbit holes. If readers haven't read an article about studiositas versus cursioritas, I would encourage them to google it, perhaps together with the key words “Josef Pieper.” Or perhaps even better, going to the source in Summa Theologiae, Secunda Secundae Partis, q. 166 (with a good translation). The virtue of study, (studiositas; studiousness, diligence), is concerned with the deliberate application of the mind to something (vehemens applicatio mentis ad aliquid, ST II-II q. 166. a. 1. 3.). That something could be abstract, concrete, an idea, a physical object.

How does the virtue of study relate to work?

Study is connected with order, specifically order in the mind so as to be in harmony with the created world around us. My work and volunteering involve scientific research, education, management, and mentorship. Study is a key virtue that comes into play in making and executing prudent decisions, whether about people, places, or things. Consider the life cycle of deliberation: (problem formulation, outlining goals and outcomes, generating alternatives), deciding (choosing one, including the option to do nothing), and execution (implementation at the right time and in the right circumstances; evaluation). It doesn't take much imagination to see how study is a part of this process.

Why is it important in a work context?

The calmness and silence that can accompany living the virtue of study provides perspective, and a realistic forecast of the arrow of time. When time is ticking, we can fall back onto what we are used to, which helps us escape from uncomfortable emotions in that moment. Study, when lived well, helps us truly move forward with confidence and wisdom, without getting stuck in analysis paralysis, or restricting our freedom to a short time horizon.

How have you personally built on this virtue?

Honestly, by making substantial sacrifices and dedicating substantial amounts of time to silent study. I've built this virtue not only in silence, but also in more energetic learning environments such as language immersion, physical learning, and imitation. Beyond that, through regular self-reflection to see if I was on course and adjust. This goes for all the virtues, which are all connected. Also, through a good balance of searching out general best practices (study skills, self-help, etc.), close observation of colleagues, apprenticeship by mentors, and then just diving in and going for it! During my undergraduate at UBC I benefited from a faculty-wide science education initiative led by a physics Nobel laureate. I followed his blog, and took classes that benefited from the support and enrichment his data-driven initiative implemented: pre-reading, clicker questions, awareness of my own learning (meta-cognition), and best practices for long-term memory retention. The initiative ran 2007-2017 and the website is a treasure trove.

I also built on this virtue when I was in a very uncomfortable situation when I was studying the hardest. For instance, when the pandemic hit and I was locked down in Toronto, I challenged myself to learn more statistics, applied math, and computer science. I started an online study group with a global audience. Years prior to the pandemic, I learned Italian at the dining table of an excellent private tutor, together with an athlete from CFL’s Ottawa Redblacks. Our teacher was fantastic. She helped us stay 'inside' the language with eye contact, repetition, and gestures. I also recall learning how to ride my computer science supervisor's electric unicycle. He spotted me in the parking lot and I was able to pick it up in a short time because of the endless hours of skateboarding in my adolescence.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about study?

The virtue of study has a lot to do with focus and attention. I owe so much to my late father, Kerry Woollard, who was a lifelong educator enamoured with the learning process. He was my champion and accompanied me every step of the way. Going back to my undergraduate years, I owe my intellectual foundations to Mortimer Adler's "How to Read a Book" (1940; 1972), Antonin Sertillanges's "The Intellectual Life: Its Spirit, Conditions, Methods" (1921), Peter Kreeft's "Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles" (2008; 3rd ed.), and many philosophy books produced by publisher Rialp and Anthony Rizzi at the Institute for Advanced Physics, theology books published by Midwest Theological Forum, among many others. I was in constant conversation with my father about these matters. Recently on a summer visit to Winnipeg I was reading Richard Hamming's "The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn" (1997), and gladly lent it to my father. He saw me reading it, and even though he knew I wasn't done, he coyly asked if he could borrow it. A few weeks later when I flew back into Winnipeg to organize his funeral Mass and bury him, I saw that he'd gotten through half of the book already. I am my father's son, and he's made me into the man I am today. I'm very thankful that helping others in their learning journey is a part of my calling. I talk with my late father about it all the time and believe that he is proud of me and helps me from where I hope he lives in our heavenly Father's mansion.

How have you lived this virtue at work?

As a research scientist I engage this in a deep capacity after I become aware of something, and commit to really understanding it at a deep conceptual, analytical and intuitive level: grokking it, as the colloquialism goes. In other words, reading the original paper, looking at source code, running the source code in a debugger and playing around, then zooming out and seeing the larger picture, making a plan for what remains to be known, and then following up on that and getting to the bottom of things.

In more operational and project management scenarios, study comes into play when I strategically decide to delay a decision until I have more information. Study starts at this moment - I delay so as to have time to study: gathering the information, analyzing it with focused attention, discussing these findings with experts and stakeholders, and working them into a wise and informed decision.

So I think a habit of study is more than just some sort of concentration superpower in the moment: it involves a life cycle of decisions on where to allocate attention.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and did you overcome that?

Of course. Who doesn't get sucked down into rabbit holes nearly every day? It's about beginning again, and getting up, which might mean closing that tab and reinserting ourselves back into the blessed task of the moment where God awaits us to co-create with him. When I started my PhD, in her orientation address, the dean of the graduate school mentioned Cal Newport's book "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World" (2016). Kevin Majeres and the folks at Optimal Work have been training people in self-mastery and flourishing through daily work, beyond what Newport would consider "Deep." They integrate many approaches, and emphasize reframing, mindfulness, and challenge. All of these resources help me be aware and harness my full capacities as an embodied being-in-time who is goal-directed and can think abstractly.

Experientially, we can live the virtue of study not only when we're turning the pages of our calculus textbook, or practicing Italian on Duolingo, but also by keenly observing the causal connections around us with our senses wide open and being perceptive to people's emotions in an empathetic heart-to-heart. So I don't think study has to take us into a state where we are uber-cerebral. It's not hyper-focus, but flexible, open to seeing reality as it really is.

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

Yes, I remember starting in my first year as an undergraduate in the Faculty of Science at the University of British Columbia, and being absolutely impressed with the intensity of my fellow students in the lecture hall and library. Most had very different education experiences, biographies, and geographical backgrounds than me. I adapted quite quickly and absorbed their strengths in terms of energy, memorization capacity (this helped me really take off in mathematics and languages), stamina for putting in long hours, and holding oneself to high standards. Honestly, my first year at university left me quite disappointed and angry with my public school education in Winnipeg and Victoria. But at the same time, I was really able to progress and recoup in a short time. Perhaps my ideal vision of primary and secondary education is too lofty.

More recently, I have enjoyed course projects, reading groups, journal clubs, and lecture series in graduate school, particularly those in the applied mathematics and computational science communities where there is an attractive tension between the mathematics on the white board and writing code with best practices in software engineering. I have particularly enjoyed locking myself in the room with senior PhD students and collaborating on projects by pair programming. We can get a lot done in a whole afternoon work session. When we need to, we just take the time and read a paper together for 30 minutes or spend the time on whatever it makes sense to.

“All men by nature desire to know.”

  • Aristotle - Metaphysics

Geoffrey Woollard was born and grew up in Winnipeg. He has also lived in Victoria and Vancouver. Geoffrey earned his BSc in Biophysics (2011), MSc in Genome Science and Technology (2014), and is currently a PhD student in Computer Science - all at the University of British Columbia (UBC). His doctoral work focuses on simulating and inferring the shapes of biomolecules in cryogenic sample electron microscopy experiments. He moved "out east" (according to his Western-Prairie geographical calibration) from 2015-2021, and worked and studied in Ottawa, Montreal, and Toronto. He has industry experience at biotechnology startups Cyclica and Structura, as well as academic research experience in Medical Biophysics (University of Toronto) and the Flatiron Institute (Simons Foundation in New York City). He also enjoys reading, writing, and speaking about our relationship with nature and technology from an interdisciplinary perspective.

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