Saturday, 2 May 2015

So you think you can Learn

Learning how to learn is probably one of the most vital yet most underestimated skills there is.

Learning is the gateway through which all progress can come to us, and yet one of the most commonly assumed learning philosophies is not only dangerously misunderstood, but seems to be based on nothing more than an equivocation between two uses of the word 'focus'. I'll explain what I mean.

Some learning really is just about muscle memory or other forms of automated responses. If you're learning to play the piano, at some point you'll just be practicing the fingering till it's comfortable for your body to do without thinking about it. Or say you were an actor learning a script of dialogue, you might go over and over it till you memorise the words.

But this kind of 'focus' is not good for any kind of learning (most kinds) that involve creativity on your part, which includes anything you need to understand to learn, or problem solve to get better at.

For this kind of learning the two things that matter most are fun and confidence.

Fun and confidence are like anchors for creativity. Nothing can guarantee creativity, its unpredictable by definition, but fun (of all its types) is a good way to encourage it. (What I mean by confidence is more complicated and I'll get back to it later.)

The problem is, most people think that focus trumps fun when it comes to learning. Take school for
example. All distractions should be eliminated, not even drinks or frequent bathroom breaks are allowed. Fun is ok, of course, as long as it is the direct result of learning and not caused by anything else, like socialising or playing.

But what's really happening in that classroom is that those kids are being under stimulated, they're in literally the worst position to creatively engage with their lessons... Say instead they were allowed to have problems they cared about, and then were just allowed to do whatever they want. They would end up getting inspired, and figuring out possible solutions to their problems, simply because their brain would still be working on the problem but would also be getting the stimuli it actually craves, not some preordained idea of what'll help a kid figure something out. 

And that's true no matter what they do. Its true whether the fun thing they do is go read a lot of books on the subject of their problem, or whether they go and do something seemingly unrelated like play or watch TV. What's important isn't actually the focus on solving the problem, what's much more important is the genuineness of the interest in the problem and the interest in the thing you're doing when you have your light bulb moment. Creativity is funny like that.

The problem is, its not just school.

People often approach work like this too. Or university revision, where the emphasis is to spending months memorizing in agony rather than trusting their ability to understand the material in their own way if the interest in genuine. 

But the example that maybe most interests me is that there seems to be this trend of typically nerdy people who fetishise learning and see fun and socialising as sort of sinful. Some seem to like it but feel ashamed of it because its undignified in their mind, others seem to not like it at all and, much like the teacher in a classroom, see it as a distraction to learning.

The equivocation I think is that to 'focus in on learning', a person needs to literally focus. But what they really need is to be motivated, inspired and left free enough for spontaneous, unpredictable moments of insight.

These nerds, therefore, tend to be really stuck. They struggle to think for themselves and have to learn most things by memorising and mimicking some authority or another. They also get terribly stuck on their personal problems, not making progress for years at a time, because they can't learn their way out of the situation. Yet meanwhile they're patting themselves on the back, and feeling superior to the people having fun, because they perceive themselves as more serious than them, not realising the tragic irony that a bit more fun and socialising might be exactly what they need to expose themselves to new ideas, inspirations, and insights to throw interesting curve balls into their thinking, stop being so stagnant, and start actually evolving in an upward direction.

But wait a minute, what about all those people who seem to spend all their time partying and socializing, but who also seem stuck and to not really learn very much?  The real question here is about whether or not you can over indulge in things that aren't related to what you're trying to learn and thus get distracted. But this is really a matter of values. If doing what you actually want to do takes you away from what you thought you wanted to achieve, it's very bad to feel ashamed of that and insist you be more disciplined. Some real conflict is going on there where you don't want what you think you want.

This brings us back to confidence. Really confidence is another word for optimism. It's the attitude that you can do this and you can do it your way, not just by following preordained ideas of what and how you should learn. It's being secure in not yet knowing the answers. And it's being secure that you can find answers. You will struggle to learn without creative and intellectual confidence. If you can't carve out your own path of what interests you and how you're going to approach it, you will unfortunately get stuck.

Recap. What things can one actually do to improve their ability to learn:
  • Don't be too disciplined, have enough freedom that spontaneous, unpredictable insights can emerge. 
  • Gear towards what you actually want to do, no matter whether or not it looks like a distraction.
  • Don't treat focus as more important than fun.
  • Don't fetishise direct, focused learning as the only kind of fun worth having
  • Appreciate that the more a distraction something seems to be, like socializing, the more likely it is to throw useful curve balls into your thinking.
  • Get rid of your authority figures. No really. Whatever justifications you have for why that person is a good authority figure, you're wrong.
  • Stay clear of preordained ideas of how you're going to learn something and be open to surprise.
  • Gain more confidence in the process described.
  • If you're having fun but not learning what you thought you would, maybe you weren't genuinely motivated to solve the problems you thought you were.   
  • Know that you can increase your interest in problems, if you want to... that sometimes you're just not motivated because you're afraid. You can't micromanage creativity, but you can improve how you learn by improving your knowledge of what problems you have and why to care about them.
  • But don't feel pressured to care about problem you don't... there'll always be problems you actually care about. 

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