Learning Hurts

pile of books

Learning hurts.

All throughout my formal schooling I did not know that. I thought that studying was supposed to be easy and if it wasn't easy then there was something wrong.

I did not know what was wrong but I knew something was - so I tried fixing things. I tried different ways of studying. I tried studying in different places. Somebody told me that I should play classical music in the background, but I never did try that. In college, I began to suspect I had chosen the wrong major; something that I tearfully confessed to my mother as we took a walk around the neighborhood during the eve of a particularly tough Economics exam. I suspected many things as being the cause of why studying - and therefore learning - was hard, and I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to fix things.

Things never did get fixed. Studying remained hard.

Now, decades after my college years (and yes, I did graduate B.S. Economics), I know that nothing was wrong. Studying is supposed to be, to borrow that great line from Jerry Maguire, "a wake up at dawn pride-swallowing siege".

Studying is hard, it will always be hard, and that is ok. That is how it is. It is simply how it is.

I don't know what came over me but I found myself in a used bookshop the other day and there was this compact Economics textbook and I uncharacteristically wanted to buy it. So I did.

Back at home, I sat down in the library. Nice hard metal and wood chair, table and lamp in front of me and I cracked open the book. So familiar. An Economics book is composed of blocks of texts with lots of graphs, some mathematics here and there, and lots of data in tabular format. So familiar. I started reading and soon I was in college again. I felt like I did back then. Uncomfortable. I wanted to close the book and run away. I felt stupid because the learning would not come easy. It is a very emotional thing. Easy to let yourself get swept up in it. When I was younger I did let myself get swept up in it. My reaction during those days was to look away, focus on other things, easier things. I held off studying till I needed to cram. I did manage to pass my exams by cramming but my retention rate was abyssmal. For example, I remember the Economics of the Health Industry as being particularly different form other industries but I can recall no details now because I crammed the whole book in two nights.

I am no longer a college kid. I am a middle aged father of two. I can only hope I am wiser now than I was. So there I was in front of an Economics textbook feeling I wanted to run away from it; do something else except read it. What I did was to stop focusing on the book and focused on the emotions it brought forth. I let myself feel uncomfortable, admitted to myself that the concepts were hard to grasp they made me feel stupid. I let myself feel stupid. Stupid and uncomfortable, I just wallowed in it. And then it passed and here I was still in front of the book. I read, and read, and read and if I didn't understand I didn't struggle with it. I forgave myself for not understanding. I noticed that some parts were clear some parts were not. That was ok; I decided that it is ok.

Why is it ok?

It is ok for me to be uncomfortable studying because that feeling of discomfort is my mind trying to get used to the new concepts I am taking in. I am like a weightlifter in the gym pushing that barbell. It is hard because my muscles are getting used to the weight. As I read the book, my mind was trying to get used to the concepts in the book; it was straining; I felt uncomfortable; I felt stupid. I simply accepted the discomfort and the feeling of stupidity. I let my mind strain and become stronger. This what I did not know then about studying and what I know now.

I finished the book understanding only a part of what it contained.

When I picked it up later it was a surprise. It was still a hard read but I understood more of it. My mind had gotten stronger. Damn it, what I would have given for this piece of wisdom back in college.