consuming, not learning

It seems like it’s never been easier to be an autodidact. Endless wikis, videos and articles are a search away. And they’re (mostly) free. All you need is the will. Supposedly.

Learning is probably the closest thing I have to a hobby. But I struggle to learn on the internet. And I think it’s because I’ve been consuming, not learning.

There’s a lot wrong with formal education. But besides the pieces of paper you get at the end (the currency of Human Resources), the best of formal education is the guidance of someone who has achieved mastery. Especially, guidance (compulsion) to practice.

Most online resources I’ve come across are instead geared around consumption. Even if there’s a “curriculum” there’s rarely an emphasis on practice. On building reps. Rarer still are explorations of what makes effective practice.

At best this is a recipe for mere familiarity. At worst it leads to stagnation, frustration and abandonment.

They aren’t all like this. When I was an undergrad I did a lot of Khan Academy to brush up on maths. There were seemingly endless practice problems and you couldn’t progress until you showed some level of “mastery”.

This seems obvious for a well trod, ostensibly linear path like maths. But repetition is the basis for learning pretty much anything. And it’s missing from a lot of the internet’s learning materials.

In the past couple of years I’ve gone deep on painting and drawing. YouTube has a fantastic catalogue of art videos, as do platforms like Skillshare or Domestika.

But you’re more likely to go down a rabbit hole of product reviews as anything else. My first months of painting were a mess of Amazon packages as I tried different brands and gadgets, even as my skills largely stagnated.

One of the longest videos in a course I recently purchased was about the teacher’s favourite tools. It was almost twice as long as the video on perspective.

Even when there are exercises attached to the lessons, there is often little on how to make it generalisable. How to self critique and correct.

The breadth of my knowledge of watercolour brands is now truly staggering. I own some really expensive brushes. But, years into my watercolour journey, I’m still unsure how I should practice.

Because I’ve been consuming, not learning.

Centring curiosity

There’s some sampling bias in how often biographies I read centre curiosity. But I wonder if it’s more my choice of reading material, than it is the kind of people who get biographies.

I started reading a new biography of Jennifer Doudna. She won a Nobel prize for her work on CRISPR.

Almost immediately we run into her being an outsider as a child, her diverse interests. Her curiosity.

“Her work also illustrates, as Leonardo da Vinci’s did, that the key to innovation is connecting a curiosity about basic science to the practical work of devising tools that can be applied to our lives - moving discoveries from lab bench to bedside.”

CRISPR is something I know little about, bar a half remembered Radio Lab episode from a few years ago. So I’m really excited to read more, and whether this pays off.

But this does look promising:

“Curiosity-driven research into the wonders of nature plants the seeds, sometimes in unpredictable ways, for later innovations. Research about surface-state physics eventually led to the transistor and microchip. Likewise, studies of an astonishing method that bacteria use to fight off viruses eventually led to a gene-editing tool and techniques that humans can use in their own struggle against viruses.”

We (really) don’t know why it happened

Fulfilment at work comes from mastery, and the perks that go with it, rather than pre-existing passion. That’s my main takeaway from So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport.

There isn’t much earth shattering in it. But it’s a great example of a simple inversion of a “common sense” idea. And the power of, and need for, different framing.

But a side note in the book is what has really captured my thinking the past few days:

There was debate in the chess world at the time surrounding the best strategies for improving. One camp thought tournament play was crucial, as it provides practice with tight time limits and working through distractions. The other camp, however, emphasized serious study—pouring over books and using teachers to help identify and then eliminate weaknesses. When surveyed, the participants in Charness’s study thought tournament play was probably the right answer. The participants, as it turns out, were wrong. Hours spent in serious study of the game was not just the most important factor in predicting chess skill, it dominated the other factors.

That we don’t fully understand or appreciate the reasons for successes (or failures) is something I’ve often returned to since reading The Hidden Half.

That book largely focused on noise and unknowability. Newport concentrates on poor framing and mental capture.

I started reading The Serendipity Mindset this morning and came across yet another spin. This is a book largely focused on luck (“serendipity”), and our perceptions of it.

The point is that when we construct our story of past events, we do what forecasters do: we create a model and ignore the details and the random events. Forecasters have a good excuse for doing this with the future: they cannot model every detail and, by definition, cannot foresee unpredictable events. But what is our excuse for doing this with the past?..
...We downplay or exclude the unpredictable events from our version of the past because random events that happened are no longer unpredictable. In fact, in hindsight they can start to look like they were inevitable. We then use information that wasn’t available to us at the time, and construct narratives that conveniently explain everything, including how each piece of the story logically connects with the rest of the story.

The overarching thread is the stories we tell ourselves are wrong. Whether due to an inability to perceive, ingrained misdirection, motivated reasoning, an uncomfortableness with randomness, post hoc rationalisation, or something else.

Eyewitness accounts seem to receive less and less credence as evidence of flaws mount. But perhaps all stories should be treated thus.

How do you foster an intrinsic motivation to learn?

I recently got the results for my latest masters courses and I’m doing pretty well. But I don’t really care. I’ve never been particularly motivated by grades. As long as they are high enough that I can keep studying whatever I want.

The results came as I started reading A bigger prize by Margaret Heffernan. It’s a deep dive into competition. Specifically, the way we have unquestioningly inserted competition into so many aspects of life even as we keep discovering the benefits (to creativity, health, equality etc.) of cooperation.

In one early chapter Heffernan describes an experiment into kids’ motivation at school. And it really stopped me short. Wondering how I had lucked into an intrinsic motivation to learn, rather than needing to be baited with gold stars.

In the original experiment, a bunch of nursery school children were divided into three groups and given the opportunity to draw. The first group was promised a reward: if they drew, they’d win a certificate. The second group was told nothing – but was surprised by a certificate when it had finished drawing. The third group just drew and received nothing for its labours. Two weeks later, the children were again confronted by paper and pens. Now the question was: which group would want to draw? The group that had initially been promised a reward was the least engaged: why should they draw when there was no certificate on offer?
Similar experiments have been conducted with different ages, tasks and rewards, in different industries and countries around the world, but the results don’t vary. Grades, stars, certificates, money, trophies: ‘virtually every type of expected tangible reward made contingent on task performance does, in fact, undermine intrinsic motivation.’

This quickly feeds into rumination on divergent thinking, the problems with exams, and the link between education and creativity. But I’d like to stop here for now.

I need to look more into these studies. They seem directionally in line with what we see in society. Most people seem to stop learning when they finish school or university. Outside of that a lot is probably motivated by specific goals - qualifying for a job etc. But is this because we have subconsciously trained people to require short term positive reinforcement in order to learn?

Even the HBR-esque calls for lifelong learning are couched in these terms. I rarely ever see advocates for learning because learning itself is good. Education is expensive, fair enough. But its precisely the non-rewards-based education that is the cheapest. Wikipedia is almost free, for example.

Heffernan’s solution is to overhaul the structure of schools to remove aspects like testing, ranking and their links to teacher pay. Eliminate some of the competition, as is the main thrust of her book. But I’m not sure I completely buy it. I don’t know what the answer is.

My emphasis.