What Does Learning Feel Like?
Is it nice?
No. Well… it CAN be nice. It sucks though. Especially if you’re operating at peak performance. Like it’s great, but it’s very tough to do well (and consistently).
I’ve been struggling to figure out if I’m getting better at the stuff on which I spend my time. This struggle has gone on for about six months now.
The things I want to learn are hard.
I focus on hard things because easy things aren’t as fun on a long timescale.
Of course - the struggle is the motivation and discipline equals freedom and blah blah blah, yet time and again I find it truly does always feel better to solve the hard problem over the easy one.
But right now that’s secondary.
Things where it’s clearer that I can excel (at least that’s what smarter people than me seem to say).
So to assess the situation, I asked myself a a question that I don’t believe I’ve asked myself (or my smart friends) before.
What does learning feel like?
How do you know you’re learning?
Does it hurt?
Does it feel good?
I’ve spent literally decades of my life in formal and informal educational institutions and pipelines and viscerally know what the outcomes of learning can look like - good grades, high placements in jobs, academic awards and accolades, etc - but I haven’t actually reflected on what the act of learning feels like intrinsically in the first person.
This is a huge gap in my self-awareness!
Especially when you consider the fact that most of the important things you’ll need to learn in your life are discovered basically on an individual basis - it’s clear to me that it’s probably something to figure out freaking asap.
I astral projected to observe myself working on new things over the past few weeks and here’s a crack at describing it.
It honestly doesn’t feel awesome I think.
It feels… hard?
Sometimes my brain hurt. Not like a migraine, just a real “I’m exhausted, not gonna process anymore in my stupid, stupid head today” type feeling.
Sometimes I felt foggy even though I KNEW I was un-fogging things bit by bit.
I often stared at a problem for a long time.
It regularly felt like I wasn’t getting anywhere, but then all of sudden I would see something a different way than I did before. Maybe not the full picture, but a glimpse.
I got distracted a lot, but not quite distracted enough for my brain to fully stop grinding through a problem (but sometimes yea totally).
I can’t leave something unfinished (or at least at a checkpoint) before bed. I blame videogames before quicksaving for this. This is a blessing and a curse.
And all this sort of swirls together to morph into a reflection of how learning feels itself.
Make it real.
Yet if you’re learning something to do something else with it (like most of the times you try to learn something new), then there’s almost definitely gonna be a valley of depression involved.
You’ll feel something like these phases:
Phase 1 - “Happy to be here” - You have no clue about anything so you just do whatever seems plausible! Pretty much everything you do here isn’t helping anyone except yourself and that’s okay. Keep it up, champ.
Phase 2 - “Those aren’t Mountains, it’s a Wave” - Now you have enough understanding of the big picture to know there is a big picture, but really you are still lost in the myriad of details. You have no sense of which details are important or trivial. Most of your activities are still exploratory, but you might end up doing something useful on accident. Not much actually gets done here either. Don’t quit.
Phase 3 - “I am aware I am an idiot” - This is the deepest phase. Most people never make it out of here alive. You can do great work here, but it’s gonna hurt because you’ll be slower than “real” practitioners of whatever dark art you’re learning. You’ll watch those who started their journey before you absolutely crushing tasks that make you completely miserable. You’ll work 2x or 3x as long as they do for worse results. That’s okay though because there’s a hack for this phase. Take a step back and reassess priorities. You can now (hopefully) pick the right thing to work on. If you choose right, then it doesn’t matter that you’re slower than the SME. Life here is high risk/high reward though. You must work on the right things in this phase. You can’t afford to do anything else. Each wasted action costs too much time. Life is often miserable here and it’s actually your average default state if you try new things a lot. (I don’t make the rules - sorry). Stay gold, ponyboy.
Phase 4 - “I am aware of most of the ways I am an idiot” - This is the good version of Phase 3. You still make mistakes, but can readily identify what they are and why you made them and can effectively prioritize fixing the important ones (while ignoring the rest!). Making it here is actually quite fun, but is often a trap. When you get good at a thing, you tend to keep doing that thing (even as marginal returns to doing that thing diminish). Pick your head up when you realize you’re here and be deliberate about if this is where you should spend your next chunk of time.
Phase 5 - “Ascendance” - You are a gigabrain god of this niche. You will crush problems in this domain with ease. You can meaningfully push the edges of this field if you would like to do so. Hopefully it was the right place to plant a flag! You’re at least a few years sunk into this thing and aren’t getting that time back. You can probably leverage this expertise to arbitrage something other people can’t to maximize whatever return types you’re looking for.
I guess what I’m saying is that learning feels like repeatedly realizing (and re-realizing) the limits of your understanding over time. Existence is pain.
You can’t “not” feel the pains of learning, but the returns can be amplified by applying maximum effort in just the right places.
I hope this added value to your day.
Follow me on Twitter (@frozenfire42) to watch me struggle.
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