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April 6th, 2021
When pursuing a new topic, learning is always more difficult in the beginning. But why? The results of learning on any given topic are asymptotic, or rather, there might be more nuance to discover as you go but overall there’s less to actually learn, so wouldn’t it be harder to uncover that nuance which becomes increasingly harder to find? Masters of a craft might argue for the opposite, but such people likely have an unrealistic view of the beginning of their journey, considering it was likely long, long ago and blessed with the sort of luck that is often phrased as ‘interest’ or ‘natural inclination.’ The fact is, for the great majority of people, learning something new is hard, especially at the start.
In the beginning the subjective experience of learning is confusion, which is far from comfortable. Confusion, in a learning context, often produces anxiety, doubt and a sense of paralysis. In fact, the early parts of the learning process might have more to do with emotional regulation than it has to do with acquiring a knowledge of the topic’s parts and how they relate.
Confusion arises when there is a lack of correlation and understanding arises when correlation gives way to revealed causation.
A lack of correlation has everything to do with where attention is being allocated. Or rather, in the beginning, learning is hard because you don’t know what’s important to pay attention to and what’s not. You’ll notice that a real expert in any topic is really quick to dive in or dismiss a particular aspect of the field when it’s brought up. Of course, this might be a sign of hubris when an expert dismisses something that actually turns out to be important, but someone who is truly excellent in their field is generally going to be very quick to figure out what actually deserves more attention, and this is a process that grows with competence while learning.
In the beginning you don’t know what to pay attention to. After some exposure, you think you’ve got an idea about what to focus on. And after time you’re quick to determine if some avenue of investigation is likely to be an unproductive rabbit hole that merely wastes more time than it’s worth.
Learning is the process of fine-tuning the application of effort. It’s an evolutionary process that seeks to make the that use of effort more efficient. Notice how this applies to people who stop learning. They are often stuck, doing the same thing over and over, expending the same exact sort of effort over and over, when learning could unlock a better way that takes less effort. But of course the learning itself almost always requires a bit more effort than the status quo: it’s a short term increase in hurt and effort for a long term benefit. That is, of course, if you know what to pay attention to as you go.