Sometimes, even though we have the tools to create or increase motivation, it just isn’t enough. The problem is not in not trying hard enough, it’s in the strategy, or rather, the field itself that we are trying to attack. This is when you’re no longer just fighting your own body, the mountain you’re trying to climb has started to fight back.
This is surprisingly widespread in our current culture, some of it intentional, some unconscious, but much of human knowledge and skill has been written up, and is being taught in a way that creates an artificial barrier to understanding and assimilating it.
Most of it is just the fact that the percentage of great teachers among mankind is rather low. Even experts of a given field often turn out to be quite subpar when it comes to giving their knowledge over to the next generation. Textbooks are often arduous reads that spend far too much time on insignificant details, and hamfist the explanation of key concepts, while university lectures are often seen by students as an ideal place to take a power nap, and through no fault of their own.
However, that is not all. We are, as a society, captives of an idea of specialization. The only people we see as valid are those who streamlined their whole lives toward a single carreer, a single area of expertise from early childhood, and much of education seems to concentrate on selecting the best candidates for each pursuit of life, as opposed to building whole human beings.
In many countries, the role of PE is not to give children a health-conscious mindset and improve their physical prowess – it is to selectively pick out the children who are best suited to become professional atheletes, while (intentionally or no) instilling a sense of failure in the rest. The same goes for music education, but in this area the problem is even more widespread, and, particularly, in mathematics and the sciences.
The idea of “teaching kids that life is no walk in the park” is a rather old maxim among teachers, and I’ve seen an otherwise extremely liberal and enlightened professor of philosophy, mathematics and psychology write that the fact that most children get a sense of failure and inadequacy from mathematics or PE classes is in fact a good thing, as it teaches them that they cannot do anything.
And this was a liberal, well-rounded, polymathic professor regarded as a role model by many students, probably the person closest to the reneissance ideal at the psychology faculty of the Eötvös Lóránd University in Budapest that I knew. If people like him hold such satanic ideas, no wonder we’re faced with so many problems.
Of course, most people who did chew themselves through all the hardships and artificial roadblocks will not be very happy to see others master their field with ease and fun, so anyone looking for help from those “in the know” will often be faced with jargon, an in-group vs. out-group mindset, and some open resentment for trying to “cheat”.
So it’s safe to assume that most fields do not want you to master them. It’s not that you cannot, you just need to find the best path of attack. Sometimes “renegade” teachers with novel ideas will create seminars and books that allow outsiders to sidestep the artificial roadblocks, and assimilate the field according to one’s own capabilities and the field’s true complexity.
An example for this would be Duncan Lorien, a pop music producer who, seeing the abysmal state of music education in the west, took it up to become the best music teacher of our generation. I attended his seminar, and it was really, really great. I recommend attending both the Understanding Music and Understanding Songwriting seminars, as they form a complete whole.
In other cases, while there may be no sherpa to lead you up, there is an easy trail up the mountain. A segment or pursuit within the field you’re aiming toward that has a lower entry barrier than others, one that will yield positive feedback in a measureable amount of time. Ironically enough, these pursuits very often have a bad name.
Take body building for example. Many athletes and coaches will openly tell you that body building is not a sport. However, while in most sports the aim of the coaches is to pick the best and weed out the rest through unenjoyable and monotonous practice, the very atmosphere in body building is different. Honestly, I haven’t seen as many newbie-friendly and helpful people in any other walk of life as in body building. And while some of the worries about “cosmetic-focused training” are valid, if you follow a good exercise regime, body building can help you become athletic, and allow you to later enter any other field of sports at your own pace.
Similarly, cycling, while boasting a much less helpful community, is an activity that scales very well, and is extremely suited to people with a traditionally “wimpy” phisique, and is thoroughly fun and enjoyable. Also, cycling is very good at providing positive feedback. You’ll notice improvements in your physique and stamina very early on, which helps one keep on track.
Sometimes there will be no clear easy road, but often the choice of textbook or teacher can mean the difference between success and failure. Anthony Lee of GetLimitless has recently blogged about a new way of learning, using short bursts of concentrated information, with resting periods inbetween. While this is extremely promising, and I know it to work (I’ve used a similar pattern to assimilate most university courses I took), getting the information in digestable, concentrated format is what is hard.
Unfortunately, United States textbooks tend to be extremely superfluous, and full of unproductive banter. In Hungary (my birth country), university textbooks are usually extremely terse. A textbook that would be a 1000 pages in the US is likely to be somewhere around 150 pages in Hungary, with the exact same amount of knowledge crammed in. I’ve had textbooks with little or no natural language explanations, the pages filled with equations and a few figures. I’m wondering if this might have anything to do with Hungary’s awesome track record for raising great scientists and inventors.
[Nb. I need to mention a huge exception here, an American textbook that cannot be described with anything but the highest praise possible. And that is the Feynman lectures on Physics, now freely available to read online. It’s the best physics textbook I’ve ever come across.]
I’ve raised the idea on Reddit that a movement could be grounded for creating terse, concentrated learning materials for various fields. I think if it took off, it might even grow to be a world-changing endeavor.