To Learn is to Be Conscious

When we are learning to drive to pass a driving test, we have to be aware. New stimuli are constantly picked up by our sensory receptors to be transmuted into interpretation and meaning, thereby helping us to make choices in the moment.

Fast forward to once we have passed our driving test and have gotten used to our car and the roads. We have stopped learning. We are able to listen to podcasts or music while driving. We may even talk on the phone or eat while driving. Sometimes we will drive our daily one-hour commute to work and it passes by in an instant. Because we are no longer focused on learning how to drive, our minds become desensitized to the activity and it starts to wander. We are no longer present. We become unconscious.

When we are learning, we are consciously competent/incompetent. When we stop learning, we are unconsciously competent/incompetent.

If all the tasks we do in our lives are things we feel we have already learned, we drift into unconsciousness. Life passes by in a trance-like state.

The solution is to learn. A state of learning always snaps us out of unconsciousness into full awareness. We can either do this by choosing entirely new skills to learn, or by refining (or even revolutionizing) the way we already do activities we feel we have fully learned. It can be as simple as becoming aware of how we breathe, or how we walk.

Because learning creates a state of awareness, life will no longer pass us by, and so being able to experience life to the fullest.

Which Lessons Do We Have to Learn the Hard Way?

In Herman Hesse’s 1922 novel Siddhartha, the troubled protagonist Siddhartha asks his friend how he can protect his son from the excess pleasure and power that he lost himself in during his life, and how he could possibly stop his son from repeating his own mistakes.

His friend replies: “Do you actually believe that you committed your foolish acts in order to spare your son from committing them, too? How could you possibly protect your son from Samsara [the material world]? How could you? Through prayers, lessons and admonition? My friend, have you entirely forgotten that story about Siddhartha, a Brahmin’s [the highest caste in Hinduism] son, that contains so many lessons and which you once told me here on this very spot? Who kept Siddhartha the Samana [a type of wandering ascetic] safe from Samsara, sin, greed, and foolishness? Were his father’s religious devotion, his teacher’s warnings, his own knowledge, or his seeking able to keep him safe? Which father or teacher was able to protect him from living his life for himself, soiling himself with life, burdening himself with guilt, drinking the bitter drink for himself, or finding this path for himself? Do you think, my friend, that anyone is spared from this path? That, perhaps, your little son will be spared because you love him and want to keep him from suffering, pain, and disappointment? But even if you would die ten times for him, you would not be able to take even the slightest part of his destiny upon yourself.”

The moral here is, that in general, future generations will repeat the same mistakes as past generations, no matter how hard we try to teach others of our own mistakes. Siddhartha’s friend highlights that not even his own father, who brought him up in a rich and nurturing environment, could stop him from wanting to leave home to become a nomad, and later an addicted, greedy merchant – Siddhartha still followed his instinct and went on the journey that led him now to the point of thinking about how best to raise his own son.

Sometimes we have to learn the hard way for a lesson to actually sink in. Finding out that stove-tops are in fact hot to touch, or knives are in fact sharp. Or in later life, that status, power, lust, and greed may not be the most valuable things to chase. We have been taught these lessons already, but sometimes we have to experience it for ourselves for us to fully accept them.

Back to Square One or Back to Base Camp?

Failure is inevitable throughout life. But when failure occurs, we can sometimes think of giving up on our goals or go straight back to square one. But we don’t have to go all the way back to the start.

Instead, we can imagine it more as if we were climbing Mt. Everest and weren’t quite able to summit. Instead of going all the way down the villages at the foothills of the mountain, we can simply regroup at base camp. That way, we can stay acclimatized to the high altitude, and try again to reach the peak quickly instead of going all the way down the mountain, losing momentum and wasting energy.

When we pursue goals in life, we usually learn so many things on the journey that build on our skills, mindset and experience. Just like in mountaineering, we become acclimatized and fitter both physically and mentally. If we then fail, it doesn’t mean that all the development and progress has been completely lost – as long as we pick ourselves back up. If it’s really a worthwhile goal, have the resilience, grit, and determination not to go back to square one.

Ubuntu: Why There is No Such Thing As Self-Made

Ubuntu is an African philosophy made famous by leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The word literally means humanity, and is often translated into “I am because we are”, or “humanity towards others”. There’s also a popular maxim in Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people”.

The philosophy teaches the interconnectedness of humanity, and that it is for your benefit to help others. It’s a philosophy that fosters community, compassion and kindness.

In the Western world, we are keen to describe ourselves as self-made, or use the term to describe someone positively. But in reality there is no such thing. In the modern world, we can easily lose a sense of the fact that we are being helped all the time. If we go to the store, we are using money that somebody gave us, to buy food someone grew, made and packaged, using a car that somebody manufactured and taught us to drive, on roads somebody else built, stopping at traffic lights that somebody invented.

The growth of the population and the globalization of the culture makes it much more difficult to remember these things that we can be grateful for, based on other people’s actions. As Warren Buffett said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Ubuntu simply describes that we can’t speak without learning it from others, walk without learning it from others, or even think without learning to think from another human being. We learn how to be a human being through other human beings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in The Book of Joy: “After all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world.”

And that’s why there’s no such thing as self-made. I am because we are. Ubuntu.

Is It Better to Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond?

Malcolm Gladwell writes in David and Goliath of bright students who apply to university. These students typically apply to a range of universities, some more prestigious than others. If we were to imagine that a bright student applied for five universities and got offers from them all, which should she choose?

Our default strategy would be to accept the offer from the university highest in the rankings, and decline the offers from the lower, less prestigious institutions.

The issue with this, Gladwell says, is that most students that get accepted into prestigious universities go from being top of their class for their whole lives to being average or below average amongst their peers in this new environment. And this can be difficult to deal with.

The drop-out rate in the bottom third of high-tier universities such as Harvard are the same as the drop-out rates in the bottom third of lower-tier universities. But the students that would be in the bottom third at Harvard would be at the top third of almost any other university!

The truth is, there’s so many smart people in places like Harvard, it’s hard to feel smart there. Instead of being dragged up by the standard of the others, being in the bottom third of a top institution can demoralize the student and lower self-belief.

So should the student choose a lower-tier university? It depends. The student has to accept that if he chooses the top-tier school he should be prepared to potentially be near the bottom of his class. If he’s not willing to accept that, the lower-tier school may be better for him, where he can shine as one of the best students in his cohort.

In my personal experience as a bright student, I applied for Oxford University and was interviewed there. Even in the couple of days I was there, I could feel how smart everyone was, as well as how extremely posh they were too! In a way I was relieved to receive a rejection letter and ended up going to the University of Manchester – a less prestigious but still reputable university.

At Manchester I didn’t have to adapt so much – I went from probably the best in my college class to second-best in my university class. Being in the upper percentile of my class meant that I was able to be picked for an international work placement, which would have been unlikely in a place like Oxford University. In the end, I still had thoughts of dropping out as one of the best students, so I’m quite grateful I didn’t get selected for Oxford University – I would have probably been too flattered to decline.

What Derren Brown Taught Me About Learning

Tricks of the Mind is a book by Derren Brown, an eccentric British mentalist/magician/illusionist/TV star. The book had been sitting in my bedroom for the last decade almost completely unread. The only section I had perused shortly after I bought it as a teenager was about how to detect a liar. Evidently, I was less than impressed and put down the book and never picked it back up until now.

Inside Tricks of the Mind are interesting instructions on how to learn some ‘magic tricks’ and the main principles needed to engineer an impressive one. But what really amazed me about this book was the section on memory.

Unsurprisingly, Brown invites us to memorize a list of 20 words in consecutive order. I said the first six words out loud several times before closing book to try and recall them. As I went to write, my mind went blank, and I ended up writing the first five words but in completely the wrong order. A complete fail.

The chapter then went to give instructions on how to remember the list of words. It used a process called linking, whereby you imagine vivid associations between the consecutive words. For example if the word “baby” follows the word “wigwam”, you can imagine a gigantic baby that is inside a Native American abode, tearing it apart as it woke up angrily from a nap. The more outrageous the story, the easier it is to remember.

Within two minutes, I had memorized the list perfectly. I was amazed. By inputting the words into my long-term memory, it became easy to remember the list. In my first attempt, I was attempting to cram my short-term memory and was destined for failure.

I could have been there for a full day with my first method learning the 20 words, but with a more effective method I managed to memorize it in a fraction of the time. I felt empowered and elated.

Within the next hour, I managed to remember a different 20-word list and their corresponding numbers, and a list of nine generic to-do tasks. I managed to memorize a 21-digit number and recite it. It’s 876498474505773498724 by the way. I did each of those with various methods such as the loci method and the pegging method, all within minutes of reading it from the page. I can still remember all of the above lists and numbers now.

I began to ponder: What other things are we trying to learn, but just learning with the wrong method? Where could we seek coaching from an expert, instead of wasting our time and energy trying to learn by ourselves? What long-accepted ways of learning could be transformed by changing the way we do things?

Please comment your thoughts and ideas below!