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February 22nd, 2021
It’s a bit of a red herring that difficult subjects require an impressive amount of intellect. All learning is some sort of mishmash of pattern recognition, some memory required for recognition to happen and a little creativity to mix those patterns. The reason why learning can be so difficult isn’t because there is something inscrutably complicated about these patterns - certainly some are quite complicated, but it has far more to do with our emotional state and the way it changes as we interact with each part of the process of learning.
Many people get frustrated during the first part: when we are trying to find a pattern in the noise of a new subject. These negative emotions that pop up make the process even more difficult. Noticing something subtle, some kind of pattern that exists between disparate parts requires a calmness, and a clear focus. Frustration, aggravation, exasperation - the experience of these emotions is antithetical to clarity and calm focus. The task gets harder, which makes the emotions heighten, making the potential for success plummet until of course, the towel is thrown in. We give up before ever really getting started.
If however, we somehow maintain the patience for that first period and simply wait calmly with focus until the brain picks out a pair of details, or a string, then the process gets easier as we go. Success, not just with the process of learning, but also emotionally is a compounding process. The noticed pattern or pattern-fragment is not hard to remember, or rather recognize. This combined with the subtle feeling of success and progress that comes with actually seeing structure in the noise combine, virtuously, like a fuel to propel the student forward. And then when creativity is needed to mix, match, and manipulate patterns to create something new, again frustration, aggravation, only cramp the goal. While certainly creativity can benefit from some kinds of stress, it rarely benefits from a sense of failure with the process of learning itself.
We can become conscious of our own psychology of learning. Warming up to a subject with a few easy passes, perhaps a few tiny exercises or projects. But we can also realize when those first few experiences of the subject are too easy, or too boring, which fails to fuel curiosity or drive to learn more. With a sensitivity for our own learning psychology we can become intimately aware of the optimal challenge and how much more difficulty or ease we need.
A great teacher calibrates this for a student on the fly, but the best student takes on this task themselves, toggling the throttle of difficulty while always moving forward, making progress and never losing momentum, both on the topic and emotionally.