What motivates us to learn new things? It all comes down to how we feel about that which we wish to learn.
I wasn’t your typical kid; somewhere around six or seven my parents bought me a set of encyclopedias and I read them from cover to cover. Yeah, that’s as freaky as it sounds but somewhere between then and now I learned how hide how much I’ve learned. Being smart somehow became something you don’t talk about. It’s OK to be good at sport, or dancing, your job or a thousand other things but if you like to learn somehow that’s seen as being a snob or an elitist. We can’t have a conversation with friends about the things that matter to us. It’s as if the jocks in high school won the war on learning and knowing more about how the world works makes you pretentious. I’ve since come to realize that how we feel about learning affects the way we learn, and if we feel ashamed or apathetic to learning then we stop doing it and now I choose to feel differently.
When I was a kid, I needed more, and being constrained by a seven year old body the only places for adventure were available in books, I wanted to be connected to the larger world, it fascinated me. Since even before that age I’ve always had strong feelings when it comes to learning and it’s only recently I’ve worked out how much of an advantage that has been. To feel deeply about the things I want to learn gives me a huge head start. For instance I’ve been decidedly frustrated in my ability to reach and communicate with people so in order to deal with it I’ve started learning about learning. If I can’t describe what I see to others then the fault lies in me, not others, well mostly.
I’ve been reading a book on phenomenography, a book on the different ways that people experience and think about something and its application in learning. It had a lot to offer me and has had some real world applications with a new starter at work, but somehow it felt like it fell short too. It never went into much detail about why people want to learn. It talked a little about motivation but only in the sense that a student is interested in parroting facts, solving problems or becomes interested in the phenomena at a deep level. Yet it didn’t delve into why someone wants to learn in the first place, why pick up a book at all. So I dived deep into the only guinea pig I had at hand, myself, and tried to work out what motivates me to learn.
In the last few weeks I have had deadlines with work and study (fear), people that fascinate me (connection), things I wanted to improve like dancing (anxiety), and problems I need to solve (anger/frustration) and so on. Almost everything I was learning I was choosing to learn about purely because I had strong feelings about them, and the way I went about learning these things depended on the type of feelings I had. Now to some of you that is probably fairly obvious, at least as far as having strong feelings has always been known as a motivator, there have been enough movies about underdogs being beaten down and learning to overcome adversity in every shape and form. Yet what amazed me was how my approach to learning changed depending on the particular feeling motivating me.
Taking deadlines for one, when I have a deadline I achieve an almost laser like focus. I’m like a Boxing Day shopper, here is my problem, and there is my solution. Other shoppers, clothes racks, walls, doors and other non-permanent features are blasted from my path in my race to reach the goal so I don’t miss out. The things I learnt were solely to do with the end goal, anything extra, anything unnecessary, was simply removed or pruned and not even considered as something I needed to learn. I end up gaining a very narrow but very deep beam of learning to a specific problem or subject. I’ll remember it for quite a while but I didn’t connect it to anything outside the problem space.
I’ve made a couple of new friends in the last few weeks, yes people are something we learn, and my approach to learning here was completely different. I wanted to know these people as close friends, connect with them 129 different ways from Sunday. Learning becomes the opposite of a laser beam. It’s more like trying to paint a picture, you have a blank canvas and you want to fill in all the white spots. You ask questions, listen, listen to the questions they ask and listen to the way you answer. In the end you have a portrait of someone, a three dimensional portrait, because you want to experience who these people are, to know them deeply.
Then you have situations which make you angry, things you don’t want to face again. In a way this is an internal form of learning. You learn how you should have acted, your own ethics and morals and personal boundaries you did or didn’t have. 1000 thoughts run through your head round and around trying to breach the gap between how things were in reality and how they should be according to what’s in your head. In essence you are learning the rules of the world around you because your internal world no longer matched reality.
Some feelings though aren’t particularly useful for learning; despair (why bother), insecurity (it won’t change anything), shame (what I’m doing is wrong) and apathy (I don’t care) for instance. These feelings make us walk through the world ignorant most of the time; they make us pass it by without stopping to learn more. We all have these black spots, things no one can force us to learn about, they become our blinkers. These are the feelings that somehow have been instilled in us about learning. I mean why bother learning; it won’t change anything anyway because it’ll make me seem pretentious. So meh, I don’t care about learning.
The examples above may not look to be about the things you find in books, what people would normally consider scholastic learning but I’ve bypassed the books in my examples. What are biographies, social science and history books but the written experience of other people? What are math’s, engineering and dummy’s guides to … books but solutions other people have already discovered for problems? What are self-help, religious or psychology books but a description of the struggles we face internally? We can learn in many different ways and scholastically by books is only one method.
Yet how we learn is affected by what we feel towards the thing we want to learn. Whether it be people, problems, or our own internal thoughts, how we feel changes the approach we take to learning about it. The feelings we have for a subject or experience will change whether we learn about it deeply, or broadly or even not at all. So the lesson I have is this. If you are struggling to learn, or can’t even be bothered to learn, but you want to, then look for something in the subject you wish to learn about that makes you feel. It should be the first thing you do, finding this feeling. Find a moron on the internet whose statement about a subject makes you feel angry, find something about a subject that causes a cognitive gap, find the fascinating, find anything at all that invokes a feeling. Once you find that feeling the subject of learning becomes that much more interesting.
Photo: Getty Images
*A minstrel was a medieval European bard who performed songs whose lyrics told stories of distant places or of existing or imaginary historical events. Although minstrels created their own tales, often they would memorize and embellish the works of others. The Modern Minstrel observes the world around him and shares it with us as lyrical story. This series was inspired by Luke Davis, whose eye for story and ear for lyrical prose are featured here.
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