How to Finally Fall in Love with Learning

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He asked her out. She looked at him. Her thought:

“Oh God, no”.

When love strikes, hormones, neurotrophins, and pheromones fire off like hot popcorn¹. Then, you feel things. A shortness of breath. A rapid heart rate. Dilated eyes.

All things Marisa didn’t feel. Because, if you’ve ever wanted to run away from a serial killer, that’s much closer to how she felt.

“I really disliked the person,” she said.

So, she told him she just wanted to be friends. Naturally, he was angry.

But oddly enough, he didn’t combust into flames or call his mother. With time, they let friendship appear. Moment by moment, Marisa unfolded him. And sure enough, the friendship trailed deeper and deeper into different waters.

Biology sees love as a mammalian drive¹. Psychology sees love as a social phenomenon. But for Marisa — who cares? With equal parts time, and equal parts friendship, another part emerged.

She was 19. It was the first time she had ever fallen in love.

To understand learning and love, you need to understand Marisa.

It starts at five years old. “I didn’t want to go outside and play,” she told me. Instead, she wanted to be inside and — like no other five year old in history — watch Martha Stewart.

From there, the obsession unraveled. She swallowed cookbooks, tweaked recipes, inhaled her creations. She was a hunter and a gatherer — her weapons were skillets, knives, and microplanes and her foraging was a cocoon of techniques, recipes, and ideas.

For Marisa, it took effort to fall in love with someone real. But with cooking, love happened fast.

Everyone wants to be like Marisa. They want to fall in love with something. They want to do interesting things. They want to wake up excited in the morning. They want to be the person who wants — really wants — to learn. They want a zealous curiosity about art, about science, about the world around them.

But they can’t find it.

They sign up for a class, only to realize they hate it. They pick up a book, only to realize — this, too — isn’t interesting. Maybe some people were born to read War and Peace, and I was born to watch season five of Desperate Housewives?

Intellectually, they know what to do — pick up a book and start. But emotionally, they can’t. Maybe, they think, they don’t have the brain to be interested. What’s fun is watching movies, checking your cell phone, and watching back-to-back reruns of Jeopardy until your eyes melt.

Everything is interesting, except when that everything is learning. The people who pursue the depths of string theory or the finer points of astrophysics — who are they? Do they live in caves? Do they know what bread tastes like?

“I was complaining to a friend about being bored with life, and trying to come up with something to distract myself to keep me from stepping in front of a train,” someone anonymously wrote, on Reddit². “I hate memorizing… I hate having to learn things….I hated school because of having to learn things. I don’t have a learning disability of any kind, I just really, really, really, really fucking hate it.”

At the end, the anonymous man — perhaps quixotically — asked, “How do I stop hating learning new things?” Better put—how do I fall in love with learning?

I think I have an answer.

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com·pe·tence
ˈkämpədəns
noun
the ability to do something successfully or efficiently.

At seven years old, he’s different. And it’s in the way that he hits.

“The dragon has a brain, a will, a black heart,” the boy later writes³. The dragon is, “at first glance like the ball machine at every country club in America”. It shoots tennis balls at 110 miles an hour, a fifteenth of a bullet. Next to the dragon is the boy’s father. He is both Armenian and angry.

The boy writes: “My father says that if I hit 2,500 balls each day, I’ll hit 17,500 balls each week, and at the end of one year I’ll have hit nearly one million balls. He believes in math. Numbers, he says, don’t lie. A child who hits one million balls each year will be unbeatable.”

For the boy, tennis became a question he’d spend his whole life answering.

Days turned into months. Months into years. And Andre Agassi, the boy — regarded as one of the greatest tennis players of all time — recounts in Open:

“I jump in the air, swing with all my strength, but I’m so tight that the ball to his backhand side has mediocre pace. Somehow he misses the easy volley. His ball smacks the net and just like that, after twenty-two years and twenty-two million swings of a tennis racket, I’m the 1992 Wimbledon champion.
I fall to my knees. I fall on my stomach. I can’t believe the emotion pouring out of me. When I stagger to my feet, Ivanisevic appears at my side. He hugs me and says warmly, Congratulations, Wimbledon champ. You deserved it today.
I’m unnerved by how giddy I feel. It shouldn’t matter this much. It shouldn’t feel this good. Waves of emotion continue to wash over me, relief and elation and even a kind of hysterical serenity, because I’ve finally earned a brief respite from the critics, especially the internal ones.”

Twenty-two million swings, he says, casually.

You want to be him, right?

Like Marisa, you wish you could love something and love it early. But it sucks. Others’ earliness juxtaposed against your own lateness is painful. And not having something to love makes roughly six of the puppies inside your heart die a little. You don’t want that.

The idea, then, is that loving something is akin to loving someone. You meet at a friend’s house. You lock eyes. Then, you make lots and lots of babies. That’s what learning is like, right?

It’s more complicated.

Amy Wrzesniewski, a professor at Yale, was a graduate student when she made a breakthrough. Her paper tried to clarify the difference between a job, a career, and a calling⁴.

In Amy’s mind, “a job is a way to pay the bills, a career is a path toward increasingly better work, and a calling is work that’s an important part of your life and a vital part of your identity.”⁵ A calling, then, is the prize.

You’d think that flashier professions, like doctor or teacher, are the jobs that people would say is their ‘calling’ — the jobs that college graduates dream about while crying softly at Whole Foods. Like Marisa and cooking and Andre and tennis, it was passion first, love second. Right?

It’s stranger than that. From Cal Newport’s take on Amy’s research:

“She found, to her admitted surprise, that these employees were roughly evenly split between seeing their position as a job, a career, or a calling. In other words, it seems that the type of work alone does not necessarily predict how much people enjoy it”

This leads to a striking conclusion.

“[She] discovered that the strongest predictor of an assistant seeing her work as a calling was the number of years spent on the job. In other words, the more experience an assistant had, the more likely she was to love her work….In [her] research, the happiest, most passionate employees are not those who followed their passion into a position, but instead those who have been around long enough to become good at what they do.”

And this lines up, not only with the research on work satisfaction⁵, but, weirdly enough, with the choleric chef from Kitchen Nightmares. On his family-focused BBC cooking show, Ultimate Cookery Course, Gordon Ramsay repeats:

“The more you cook, the more confident you will become, and the more time you will want to spend in the kitchen”

Repeat after me: The more you (fill in the blank), the more time you’ll want to (fill in the blank).

The confidence literature lines up with this⁶. You’re not a confident marine-biologist because you tell yourself affirmations until you lose feeling in the left side of your face. You feel confident because, simply, you are good.

Loving something, then, and loving something deeply, is a side-effect of getting good at it.

Pushing past the frustration of being bad — of hating, hating, hating it! — is the whole point. Finding something ‘you were born to do’, for people like you and me, is dead. Instead, a love is made, not found.

It was middle school for me: I play basketball, I hate it. I play basketball again, I want to jump off a two-story balcony so I can, at best, break my ankles, and at worst, go into a coma. But on the twentieth hour, I start to get a sense — I think I like this. For me, basketball worked less like Marisa’s cooking and more like her first love. And for people who aren’t naturals at something they’re learning, it helps to think like this.

“In the process of paying my dues, or working and learning,” Pulitzer Prize winner Jon Franklin reflects, “it metamorphosed into something else, into a compulsion, into an addiction, into a love.” Love, unlike a chalupa, doesn’t feel good for 6 minutes. It feels good forever.

Of course, some people — like Marisa — are lucky to get good early. So, let’s just say it: people who don’t have interests, don’t have interests because they are simply good at nothing.

But that’s not right, is it? Because, to understand the deeper complication, I need to bring you back to Andre. And as good as he was, he had a secret. Andre Agassi, in Open, confides in (of all people) the actor Kevin Costner:

“[Costner] loves sports, follows them avidly, and assumes I do too. I tell him shyly that I don’t follow sports. That I don’t like them.
How do you mean?
I mean, I don’t like sports.
He laughs. You mean besides tennis?
I hate tennis most of all.
Right, right. I guess it’s a grind. But you don’t actually hate tennis?
I do.”

Andre to Brooke Shields, his ex-wife:

“She laughs. You don’t actually hate tennis.
Yes.
But you don’t hate hate it.
I do. I hate it.”

And Andre to Gil, his long-time friend, and personal trainer:

“He laughs.
You don’t actually hate tennis, he says.
I do, Gil, I really do”

You can be good at what you do, and still hate it. So, question:

What the hell is going on here?

free·dom
ˈfrēdəm/
noun
the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

Marisa didn’t have to cook. It just happened. Naturally, easily, of her own volition. And that very sense of control propelled her to become a pastry chef in, strangely, the 3rd most expensive restaurant in the world (where the average guest spends more than a thrifty family of four trying to eat for a month and a half).

The idea — in psychology — of autonomy, is a king. It says that if you have control over what you do, that control can flip nearly anything into something lovely and palpable⁵. It’s why people don’t want to work on someone else’s poopdeck — they want to build their own ship into startup land. It’s why Peter Gray, research professor at Boston University, says that children, above all, know something few people say — school is prison.

A friend once told me that his coach was too hard on him. “He killed baseball for me,” he said. He started to hate the sport. And then, he quit.

This is analogous to the problem with institutional learning. Imagine if I told you: I want you to love baseball, so I need you to memorize all the players, their RBI, and then, take a test⁷. Spelling and grammar count.

I just killed the party, right?

All the externalities — grades, a rigid syllabus, a lack of personalization, a dearth of creativity — suck the joy out of learning like a Dyson vacuum cleaner. In middle school, kids start calcifying a bitter disposition toward school, and in turn, toward the whole enterprise of learning⁸. The worst part? That bitter disposition might stick for life.

Great teachers can make institutional learning great. And yes — there are kids who love school, because the intoxicating effect of competence overpowers their lack of autonomy. Andre Agassi — despite a dark hatred for the sport he famed — really did cry when he won the Wimbeldon in 1992. He didn’t fake it.

But, a lack of control is a handicap. Imagine everytime you wanted to learn how to bake a cake, someone jumped into your window and punched you in the face. This is exactly what bad externalities do — they suck the joy out of learning because they punch you in the face with their subtlety. You don’t really know it’s happening when it’s happening — it just intuitively feels like “math sucks” or “science sucks” or “my life sucks”.

Bluntly: bad externalities kill intrinsic love. Carefully nurturing that intrinsic love, then, is a long-term play. Report cards are, in a sense, a short-term play.

This brings it back to the wonderful case of Marisa. Falling in love with learning something can be fast or slow, early or late. But regardless of the time it takes (and well knowing that falling in love with someone is a different biological process than falling in love with something), having control over what you do is a texture of a broader idea: freedom. And freedom, Marisa had. Under a demanding father, Andre didn’t. His million swings were not because he wanted to — it was because he gritted his teeth and did it anyway. Self-determination theory calls it autonomy, some call it control, others call it play, but, for the sake of simplification and stickiness, to me — it’s freedom.

Freedom — the freedom to do what you want to do, try what you want to try, go where you want to go, learn what you want to learn — is a magical ingredient. It isn’t an idle concern, or a gimmick, or a sheen that you apply to learning after the fact. Choosing the direction you’d like to learn, choosing which projects to pursue, choosing how these projects apply to the real world, choosing, choosing, choosing — they all start with choice, because choice implies freedom, and freedom is what, even children — Peter Gray would contend — crave. And freedom, quite simply, is an ingredient that, matched with competence, can help you find Cupid’s crosshairs more easily.

But wait.

The only things that are interesting are things like art or writing or comedy or breakdancing in the middle of my living room naked. Sure, I’m ‘free’ to do other things…but things like economics and theoretical computer science — I mean, they’re just so dry. They’re so boring. Unlike breakdancing naked.

Glad you asked.

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rel·e·vance
ˈreləv(ə)ns/
noun
the quality or state of being closely connected or appropriate.

The brain is the most complicated device the universe has ever known⁹. Our fundamental flaw, then, is that — when given this piece of lovely machinery — most of us have no fucking clue where the instruction manual is.

The brain is trying to sort through millions of tiny sprinkles of information. A look to the left — there’s a pretty lady. A look to the right — a car speeding. Your brain can’t attend to everything. Because if it did, you’d explode and get all over the living room floor.

So, what if the question your brain is asking itself is simple? What if your brain is simply looking for things that are relevant?

There’s two types of people in this world: people who say they’ve questioned the usefulness of learning, and two-faced liars. If learning something doesn’t fit into the puzzle of your life — however that arrangement of pieces may look — your brain turns off, shuts down, zones out.

If you don’t believe in something, your body won’t follow. It’s like that scene in Spider-Man 2. He doesn’t want to be Spider-Man anymore, and — oh my god— he loses his powers and plummets from the sky.

To earn the requited love of an esoteric topic, you have to find out why it’s relevant to you. Whether that relevance is laced within it’s inherent entertainment value (more so for the arts) or it’s practicality (more so for the sciences), you have to find it, and you have to engage with it. The easiest way? Find a real-world project that wakes you up. If you’re learning computer programming, don’t just learn it — create applications. If you’re learning economics, don’t just learn it — write about it.

Because, the truth is, all things have boring parts. Even the best relationships are filled with moments when the moment just isn’t enough. Instead, like an explorer, you have to use your sense of curiosity to set yourself up for a deeper, cultivated curiosity. You must sell yourself on whatever you’re doing before you do it¹¹. You must actively try to do something that connects to the real world. And you must do it as a consideration in advance — not as a side thought.

Imagine being a pastor, yet you don’t believe in God. Or, a tennis player, yet you have no interest in the sport. You — and you alone — have to sell yourself on the sport, better than Madison Avenue will ever sell you on anything. Not only will your ability to convince yourself effect your ability to perform, like bad externalities, it’ll suck the joy out of something before you even begin. If you are someone who believes that some subjects are ‘intrinsically boring’ — even though hundreds of balding professors have convinced themselves otherwise — you’re shooting yourself in the foot before you even begin¹¹.

Some people convince themselves that subjects are interesting because of it’s status. But, even if high-status isn’t a great reason to like anything (it usually isn’t), once you’re deeply convinced physics is important, you’ll be better prepared to forge through the boring bits. Yes, discipline is a factor (it always will be), but — more times than not — your interest will propel you far enough. At a certain point, you’ll even start to fall in love with the useless depth.

That’s when the balding and the tenure start taking form.

There are a million billion synapses in the brain, all changing, twisting, turning, into something wonderfully different⁹. I’ve always loved what the scientist Terrence Sejnowski says:

“You’re not the same person you were after a night’s sleep. It’s as if you went to bed with one brain, and woke up with another…”

You can wake up as someone new. Learning (and falling in love with learning itself) makes you a new person. My co-host Kevin Sanji, puts it nicely:

“You want to get excited about something? This is how you get excited about something.”

The best learning has always been coated with emotion¹².

But emotions are complicated. How emotions bubble up to the surface and penetrate through consciousness are the product of “different organismic subsystems”¹² working together effortlessly to where — boom — you’re crying all over your new sweater.

In many cases, the goal is to simply get you to know something, pass the test, memorize the players. Know it once, know it well.

But what if we focused on creating an intrinsic emotional connection to learning instead, not with motivational posters (“Reading is Awesome! Seriously, Trust Me!”) but with infusing good, practical ideas into our own self-directed learning?

It’s the kind of love that can last long-term, do you well. Like most love, it’ll be hard to shake.

Natural learning — as J. Scott Armstrong puts it — is the “way humans learn since birth”. When the responsibility of learning is on the student, not the teacher, everything starts humming like a well-tuned orchestra. People start falling in love. As he notes, when the responsibility is on the teacher, it is based on extrinsic rewards, and these rewards undermine an intrinsic interest in learning.

Because, isn’t intrinsic interest what you’ve been after this whole time?

There is — as with all things — more nuance and subtlety here. But, if you supply the backbone, you can usually fill in the details. If you are setting out to learn a skill or learn a body of knowledge, the ingredients are the same:

  1. Competence — Push past the hard parts until you get good. Once you get good, you’ll feel good. This is the most important ingredient.
  2. Freedom — Choose how you’re going to learn, when you’re going to learn, what you’re going to learn, and let your curiosity drive you.
  3. Relevance — Sell yourself on what you’re learning, and find ways to make it relevant to your life, and the real world.

Hopefully, if you get those 3 right, you’ll get a fourth.

love
(ləv/)
noun
a person or thing that one loves.

Special thanks to Kevin Sanji, Justine Brumm, and Vysali Soundararajan for looking over drafts of this!

 

RESEARCH

  1. Maryam, S., & Bhatia, M. S. (2009). Love and mental health. Delhi Psychiatry J12(2), 206–12.
  2. “I Hate Learning New Things.” Reddit. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2017.
  3. Agassi, A. (2011). Open. Plon.
  4. Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of research in personality31(1), 21–33.
  5. Newport, Cal. So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Hachette UK, 2016.
  6. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2013). Confidence: How Much You Really Need and How to Get It. Penguin.
  7. Godin, S. (2012). Stop Stealing Dreams:(What is School For?).
  8. Hagenauer, G., & Hascher, T. (2010). Learning enjoyment in early adolescence. Educational Research and Evaluation16(6), 495–516.
  9. Oakley, B., & Sejnowski, T. (2015). Learning How to Learn: Powerful mental tools to help you master tough subjects. University of California, San Diego. Coursera Inc. Disponível em: https://www.coursera.org/learn/learninghowtolearn. Acesso em: novembro de.
  10. Armstrong, J. S. (2012). Natural learning in higher education. In Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning (pp. 2426–2433). Springer US.
  11. Young, Scott H. “How to Learn Boring Subjects.” Scott H Young. N.p., Oct. 2013. Web. 21 June 2017.
  12. Hagenauer, G., & Hascher, T. (2010). Learning enjoyment in early adolescence. Educational Research and Evaluation16(6), 495–516.