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How to Be An Unstoppable Learning Machine

Updated on June 1, 2016

The Story of The Unhappy Math Student

In high school, I often thought along the lines of many peers: “School and studying is a burden that other people make me do. I don’t want to do these things, and therefore school sucks and learning sucks.” I got good grades because I liked getting good grades, but I found studying and working on schoolwork to be cumbersome.

I carried this mentality with me into college, and started noticing its toxic affect on my work. Every time I didn’t understand something, my first response was to groan or complain. It’s a natural instinct, and it’s a common response among many people. People who dislike their jobs complain about going into work, people that dislike their classes will constantly be fighting their subconscious to get to class on time or provide better work.

I was taking a math class from my advisor at the time, and noticed how truly excited he was about math. He started every class with a jump stop, a huge smile on his face, and a prepared mind for the day’s lecture ahead. Also, not coincidentally, he was one of the smartest people I have ever met. He was so quick and accurate with his thinking that it was intimidating, despite his crazy happiness.

My first year, my grades were okay. Nothing impressive, but better than most of my peers. I was no longer alright with the status quo–for much of my life to that point I had been pretty average compared to my peers, and I decided I wanted to change that. A big part of that summer (and a few following summers) was dedicated to figuring shit out. Namely, what made my professor so smart? How could he enjoy learning so much, especially when it was so structured? It’s not like I could skip a lecture I thought was dumb–I had to “put up with it.” This was irksome for my young mind.

After talking with him about it, it was clear that at some point his mindset had changed. He went to college to play basketball, and ended up wanting to be a professor. After an experience tutoring freshman year, he ended up deciding he liked math a lot. From liking math, he cultivated a mind that was unstoppable.

Most people that I’ve met are mentally capable of learning just about anything. While some people “get it” faster than others, I’ve taught students (as a TA and tutor) that eventually figure it out, despite repeated failures. Just like everything else in life, if you keep trying at something you will eventually succeed irregardless of your intelligence level. When we like to do something already, we don’t stop after failing. I actually liked the process of playing baseball, and I was discouraged at times, but I never wanted to stop trying because I genuinely enjoyed it.

As an added benefit, the coined term “the happiness advantage” has been applied to describe the cognitive affect of being better at something just because you’re enjoying it. When you’re happier first, you’re better at things second. This isn’t really that surprising. We are more creative, more upbeat, and get drained of energy less quickly when we’re actually enjoying ourselves.

Thus, my freshman mind, filled with the wisdom of my mentor, decided I would do everything I could to genuinely enjoy math, and school in general. The best way to do this is focus on the things you like about it (and yes, there’s always something). I would focus on how exciting it was that everything fit so well together–limits, derivatives, integrals, it was all so seamless. And when I discovered that different fields of math were all so related (for example, the fundamental theorem of Algebra requires Complex Analysis, or working with imaginary numbers), I focused on how powerful that felt to know all these things. I got used to really letting myself enjoy succeeding at figuring out problems, and anything else that added to my enjoyment of learning.

I found that, by focusing on enjoyment, the work flowed naturally out of me. I actually liked working on math.

It was shocking to my former self.

After I adopted that approach to learning, I received one A minus–every other grade I got was an A–for my remaining three years in college.

How You Can Use This to Improve Right Now

Take something you really want to accomplish, and focus on enjoying it. It sounds simple because it is.

Sometimes when I don’t feel like doing something, rather than use discipline to get myself through it (which I’ve done often in the past), I will try to figure out what I’m really going to like about doing it. If I don’t feel like working out, I’ll imagine myself lifting and enjoying the act of moving weights. I’ll imagine myself completing a mile in six minutes or less, panting of breath, and feeling accomplished. I won’t act on this feeling just yet–I’ll let it manifest itself. After an hour or two, my workout is better than it normally would have been, and I feel better than I normally do.

An added bonus to this approach is that you won’t ever find yourself doing something you don’t enjoy. For most people, we end up getting a job we don’t like or being forced to work for someone we don’t want to. Many people are miserable because they feel trapped in their situation. They feel powerless to the inevitable force that is the Machine of stressful work. By focusing on enjoyment, you’ll naturally have more fun with what you do and you’ll be better at it.

And that’s why we play the game.

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