Okay, granted, it’s a crappy title for this blog post. It kind of assumes that I know what I’m talking about, that I’ve got a bunch of answers, and that’s not what I mean. What I mean is, I felt like writing an essay. And this was the essay that was on my mind: when I gather facts, it’s different than when I learn something.
Wait, back up a second.
Essay. What’s the word mean? It implies a certain kind of structure: here’s my premise, here’s three to five main points, here’s my closing argument. But that’s bullshit. That’s not an essay. That’s an argument: here’s what I’m going to try to convince you of, here are my arguments, and to sum up (you blithering idiot), here’s my conclusion. Blah blah blah. An essay isn’t meant to be an argument. It’s meant to be a trial, an essay. An attempt. An essay can fail. It doesn’t have to be all in your face about what it wants to accomplish. It can…be a lot of things. A testing of ideas. Blog post, sure, this is a blog post. But it’s also an essay.
So, back to it. A trial of ideas, on the subject of learning.
When I learn something, what happens? I can tell you the symptoms of learning: I feel like a piece of shit, like I’m the world’s biggest idiot. I get depressed. I question my assumptions. I hate myself. I drive myself down into the mud, and then…I’m not sure how this works. Things just…get better. I call it “leveling,” because I’m a gamer, and gamers understand sudden jumps in abilities. It’s not a smooth progression. You don’t gradually get better at a task; it plateaus, you learn something, and then you suddenly get a lot better. Over and over and over again. There is no permanent state of “being good at X,” because if you’re not an idiot this cycle keeps happening. The people who are actually good at something have less and less awareness of being good at it, I think, because they’ve gone through the learning cycle so often that they’re wary, like horror movie buffs. “Oh, you think you’re good now, do you? Just wait until the next time you go into that base–don’t split up! Don’t split up! Auuuuuugggghhhh!!!” They know what’s coming, if not specificially, then that it will come, and that they’ll be torn up all over again.
So how do you make it easier on yourself? How does anyone learn how to learn?
Well, one thing I’ve learned is that gathering a lot of facts helps. With a lot of facts, you can spread out the leaning cycles in smaller, more frequent chunks. “Ah…well, that assumption was wrong” is so much easier to take when you’re breaking it down into smaller bites. Gather data.
Getting advice from people you respect is good, because it’s harder to go into denial about the advice. You go, “I know you’re right, I just can’t cope with it yet.” You can resist the learning, but you know it’s coming…it cycles around until it hits you again, but this time you’re ready for it (usually because you’ve been gathering facts).
Admitting that you need to keep learning and that, if you don’t want to learn something, as in you’re actively resisting it, actively resisting anyone who even comes close to talking about it, it’s time to say, “I lose, this is what I need to learn,” and start digging in. It feels like you’re losing a conflict–the conflict between your ego and the universe, I guess.
Having a good goal. If you want something more than you want your pride, it’s easier to learn. It always helps me to go, “I want to be good at this more than I want to be right.”
But. All those things having been noted, and probably some other tactics that other people use, it’s still hard to learn. I have all these techniques to dull the pain, but it doesn’t seem any easier. Faster, yes. I spend less time recovering from the down cycle of learning. –There’s a thought. How well do optimists adapt? I wonder if there’s been a study. The word I’m looking for isn’t optimist, it’s something else. How well do people who never second guess themselves adapt? Do they learn? Is doubt a necessary condition of growth? Is unassailable confidence a flaw?
I want to say yes, and maybe that’s what I’ll find out from this essay, that I just want to comfort myself because I have doubts. Faith–faith isn’t the word I want, in contrast. People with faith are full of doubt. They walk across an abyss, one foot at a time. People who don’t doubt don’t, in my opinion, really have faith. They just have excellent being-brainwashed skills. Like courage and fear. You can’t have courage without fear; you can’t have faith without doubt. They aren’t opposites. Well, as the case may be: I’m sure this won’t be the first essay written to justify one’s own beliefs or actions.
You can’t have an essay without inspiration. Somewhere in the middle of a true essay, you have to come up against a wall, and you have to jump. You do jump, and you cross…for better or worse, if you finish the essay, you cross somewhere. Maybe somewhere stupid. Essays, despite what they teach in schools, aren’t truly made up from a perfect structure. The structure comes out of the post-essay analysis, not out of the writing. A good essay includes an element of chaos, not of disorder, but of unpredictable order. One foot in front of the other, not knowing where you’ll end up, but knowing that you’ll end up somewhere, because you’re walking.
–I have a saying about writing science fiction, not really true, but true enough. “All good lines of thought lead to Neal Stephenson.” I’ll often start playing with an idea and end up with a couple of lines out of Diamond Age or something. I feel frustrated, but at least I know it’s a good path. I suspect a lot of people have something similar, in their lines of expertise or affection or taste. “All good puns lead to…” “All good cooking shows lead to…” “All good Facebook posts lead to the front page of Reddit…” Things like that.
Essays, learning, lines of thought. Essays, learning, lines of thought.
Where do they go?
Is it possible to make it easier to learn? Is it the human condition, or am I so patterned as a writer now that it’s impossible for me to imagine a real learning that doesn’t involve depression, destruction, redemption? A thought that’s been haunting my freewriting is that a good story is just…the learning process. Something happens you can’t understand. You feel bad about it, try to solve the problem, fail, try to solve the problem, fail…gathering facts and friends and advice along the way…screwing things up right and left until…that black moment when you can’t pretend to be right anymore, you can’t pretend to understand. Once you hit that, you despair.
And then…there’s a leap. You try something else, something completely different, you have no idea whether it will work (you can’t possibly believe it will, it probably won’t, but what have you got left to lose?), and, finally…it just does.
There’s one story: someone learned something. Or, in a tragedy, ultimately didn’t. –Some tragedies, like Kafka or Brazil, are about the value of not learning, not adapting. Why on earth would you want Gregor Samsa to learn how to support his family…as a giant beetle? They never gave a shit about him anyway.
Sure, a lot of stories don’t look like they’re about learning. “Oh, I need to find the X, fall in love with the Y, and save the Z.” But–every story is just someone’s made up, imaginary world. Every problem is self-manufactured. Every drama is a made-up drama, written by someone addicted to the stuff. They might be more or less realistic, but realistically most people’s dramas are made up. “How would a Buddha handle this?” usually ends up with, “With an eyeroll, a hug, and a plate of cookies.” Wait, that’s Grandma, but you get the point. A lot of things that look dreadfully important, worth all kinds of throwing yourself on the floor and having a tantrum over, aren’t. We just aren’t wise enough to know ourselves, or to do it the right way the first time.
So: that takes me back to the beginning. It’s not quite Neal Stephenson, but it does make me realize that I’m at the end of this.
How do you learn more easily?
By being wiser.
How do you become wiser?
By making mistakes and learning from them (presumably painfully).
Ugh, I already knew that. I guess that’s what you get sometimes. “I already knew that.” I just wasn’t wise enough to remember.