Entertaining yourself is a key part of learning
March 21, 2015
If you like to learn — and I certainly do — you might fall into the trap of believing that learning is always fun. It often is, but not always.
At least part of true learning is what I’ll call schlepping. (I was inspired to use this term by Paul Graham’s essay about schlep blindness; I’m using this term in a similar, but not the same, way.) Schlepping is all the non-creative work that’s involved, usually to build basic skills. Some examples:
Running laps is really boring, but you need to do some of that to become great at almost any sport.
Speaking a foreign language is fun, but you have to memorize a bunch of rules along the way; in German, the future is die Zukunft, feminine, not der Zukunft, masculine. And there are tons of these rules.
To negotiate billion- (or even million-) dollar deals as an investment banker, you in many cases need to have spent years in the trenches as an Analyst or as an Associate, developing an intuitive sense for corporate finance but not really talking to clients. One of the best bankers I worked with at Citigroup was known for printing out and checking financial models by hand; he did this, at least a little, for several acquisitions that he managed in the tens-of-billions range.
Knowing how to make schlepping fun is an extremely useful skill.
I try to do this whenever I can. Instead of running laps, I run intervals instead. (Still not fun, but more interesting than running laps or long, slow distance.) When I learn a new language, I use flash cards to make learning into a game, and increase my efficiency. Listening to music at the gym is a widely-practiced way of making lifting weights more interesting. But you have to think to come up with these painkillers.
Since being able to schlep is valuable, I would also argue that there’s some value in doing stuff that’s really boring occasionally, for its own sake. That value is: the practice you get in making boring things interesting. Improving your tolerance for schlepping, I suppose I would say.
The huge risk, of course, is that in getting good at schlepping, you lose sight of making sure that you are, in fact, learning. That the non-creative stuff is leading to something that’s more engaging, and intrinsically rewarding. You wouldn’t want to study flash cards, or run laps, all the time.