The Only Way to Learn Something! (or ?)

I saw this advice from James Altucher:

The only way to learn something is to have a passionate interest in it, then learn it, then repeat it, then try to teach it to someone else.

Altucher is a writer, podcaster, entrepreneur, Internet personality. He’s written self-help books. His Medium tag line is “For some reason, I’ve turned myself inside out and all my guts have spilled onto my blog.”

This quoted advice does not come from the ivory tower. I say that neutrally. I love evidence-based guidance on teaching and learning. But the anti-intellectual in me is a sucker for things that sound right and seem like a good idea, even lacking careful study.

This quote has been stuck in my head for two reasons. First, the quote is sticky because it really resonates with me. Most days at my job I feel profoundly grateful for my career. In both research and teaching, I explore my interests, learn what I need to for depth of understanding, and then share that understanding. That’s a pretty succinct (if abstract) description of being a professor. Learning, one of the two ingredients for loving your professional life, is my job.

Second, the quote is sticky because it makes me feel conflicted. If the “ONLY way to learn something” is to have a passionate interest in it and to follow that passion, then students everywhere are in trouble, and I am part of that trouble! Our formal education systems are designed for scale and efficient transmission of knowledge from those who have it to those who can benefit from having it. They are not designed to tenderly nurture, or deliberately nip, budding passions. The professor sets out the roadmap and the students, in the best cases, come along for the ride.

Resolving my conflicted feelings about the quote helps me understand why universities continue to be relevant in the age of unlimited, free information. Above I mentioned that learning is one of the two ingredients for loving your professional life. The other one is the people around you.

In universities, knowledge abounds. And so do people. Students in a university degree program, or even a single class, have made a visible, expensive commitment to learning, even when knowledge is available for free online. To get the most from that commitment, students should invest not just in studying for tests but also in forming relationships. Those relationships may be with other students, faculty, university staff, alumni, or members of the local community. I’m suggesting relationships that help you discover your interests. Or help you fuel those interests. Some of the most valuable relationships give you encouragement or simply the space to be yourself that you may not have had in your pre-college years.

I said that university classes are not designed to tenderly nurture, or deliberately nip, budding passions. At least not at scale. But they set up the conditions for connecting students with people who can help with those things. Students, you will know you are getting the most from your investment in school when you start to feel the magic of internal motivation. As Altucher advises, there is momentum in passionate interests. And incredible gratification. If you have made your own pro-and-con list for attending college and decided pro, do yourself a favor and make room in your formal education for a passionate interest to learn, repeat, and teach to someone else.

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