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Enjoying the Pain of Learning Will Make You Smarter

Why we have it all backward

Blue pill or red pill, which will you take?
Red pill makes you fluent in every spoken language.
Blue pill makes you a master of every musical instrument in the world.
Which would you take?

This question split opinions on Reddit; neither option was more popular. But everyone agreed on one thing: learning should be fast and painless.

“I was blind, but now I see. A tablet a day and now I’m limitless. I now have cultural appetites.” — Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper)

Who wouldn’t like to have more “cognitive RAM”?

“Limitless” storyline revolves around how Eddie’s life changes after he gains superhuman powers by taking NZT-48 pills. The movie makes everyone wonder if such a shortcut is available — a drug that exponentially enhances our cognitive capacity.

Limitless is the fantasy of every life hacker.

Our society prioritizes rapid outcomes over effort. The hunger to over-perform is indirectly proportional to the pain we are willing to stand. The “no pain, no gain” motto feels better suited for 19th Century piano teachers than for today’s educators.

We have come to believe that easy and fast equals to better. And that the best teachers are those who make learning unchallenging. We’d rather take a pill than exercise our brain.

Aristotle said: “Learning is not child’s play; we cannot learn without pain.”

The truth is that “pain” is anything but evil; you benefit from being challenged. Treat your brain like a muscle. Constant exercise will strengthen your cognitive capacity, not a pill.

A ‘painful’ learning experience will make you smarter.

This is how.

The Problem With Making Things Too Easy

“The wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior. The right kind motivates students to learn.” — Carol Dweck

Easy learning is deceiving. Its effects are an illusion; they are anything but long-lasting.

We have it all backward. Parents expect teachers to make the learning experience as easy as possible. The same trend is affecting the workplace: people wish for a painless experience. But there’s a dark side to “happy cultures,” as I wrote here. Teachers and bosses who challenge you, are actually doing you a favor.

If things become too easy, they lose value.

When students think something is ‘easy to learn,’ they don’t put enough effort. A study from Kent State psychology showed that college students ability to retain information dropping. The actual learning was superficial when they thought something was a ‘piece of cake’ — it didn’t last beyond one test.

When learning is easy, we become over-confident. Similar studies have shown that when students believe they “got it in the bag,” they actually don’t know the material as well as they think.

“Spoon feeding, in the long run, teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” 
― E.M. Forster

No pain, no gain is the rule when it comes to gaining happiness from increasing competence at something,” said professor Ryan Howell, “People often give up their goals because they are stressful, but we found that there’s a benefit from learning to do something well.”

When you start something new — at work, school, or the gym — you experience decreased happiness in the moment and lower levels of enjoyment. You suffer. But later, when you look back, you feel happy and satisfied with what you’ve accomplished. Research suggests that you need to go through temporary stress to reap the benefits associated with increased competency.

Albert Einstein said: “It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”

On her book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success,” Carol Dweck challenges how we praise kids. When you praise intelligence (“You are so smart!”), you are sending the message that intellectual ability is fixed. On the contrary, when you praise the effort, you acknowledge the ability to learn (and overcome obstacles).

Praising should be specific and honest. Telling everyone “Good job!” to make them feel good causes more suffering than the pain of learning.

This Is Your Brain on Pain

“Learning never exhausts the mind.” ― Leonardo da Vinci

The brain needs to be stretched beyond its comfort zone to stay fit.

Professor Kurt Fischer said: “The brain is remarkably plastic. Even in middle or old age, it’s still adapting very actively to its environment.”

Neurons that fire together, wire together.

The brain is more like an ecosystem than a machine hard-wired by genes. Neuroplasticity is the selective connections between neurons in our brains. Doing new activities helps to build new brain cells and strengthen relationships between them.

Your brain benefits when you tackle something you don’t know.

Don’t avoid the pain. The brain never stops changing and adjusting. The challenge of learning keeps it young and active.

Adopt A Learning Mind

“Most of us think of ourselves as thinking creatures that feel, but we are actually feeling creatures that think.” — Jill Bolte Taylor neuroanatomist

Adopting a learning mind is a choice.

It has nothing to do with your smarts; it’s a way of living as I wrote here. A learning mind is about embracing the joy and pain of the process, not just the outcome. For experts, nothing is difficult. But how can you become an expert on something if you don’t try it first? Or even worse, if you don’t put the time and effort to develop the expertise.

Albert Einstein said: “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”

The brain is a machine; your mind is not.

Think of the brain as the hardware and the mind as the software. You can program the latter thus affecting the performance of the first. Both are interconnected as one team feeding off each other.

Jill Bolte said: “Unfortunately, as a society, we do not teach our children that they need to tend the garden of their minds. Because we have not learned how to more carefully manage what goes on inside our brains, we remain vulnerable to what other people think about us.”

Your mind is full of thoughts and beliefs. The pain associated with learning is part of a self-defense mechanism.Your brain is lazy and chooses the most straightforward path; your mind worries and can be deceiving. You must tame your mind to stop thoughts from eating you alive, as I wrote here.

How to Deal with the Pain

“You have to go through the long, painful process of learning techniques to be able to recognize a “good accident” or a “bad accident.” — Helen Mirren

Reframe pain as a signal.

Pain is an indicator of learning. Also, it helps you identify the areas that you need to strengthen. Pain is a clear signal that you are actually doing something new. Neurons that are weak, unused, or that don’t fit the job are pruned. Neurons that are exercised get stronger and develop more connections.

Focus on long-term goals. Don’t try to learn everything overnight. You are not competing against anyone except yourself. There’s no reward for who reads more books per week. Are you aiming to break a record or to discover new thoughts? Spreading out learning allows links between neurons to strengthen.

Image by Eva-Lotta Lamm — Source: On practice: My personal learning curve

Embrace the bumpy road. The learning curve is anything but predictable. The initial passion quickly turns into a honeymoon until suddenly you hit the wall and get stuck. Or, even worse, one day you feel you made progress and, the next one, you believe you know less than when you started the journey. Don’t panic. Learn to enjoy the ride.

Don’t quit, sit on it. When you hit a wall or feel stuck, take a break. Learning can be painful, but it doesn’t need to be unbearable. A pause is very productive for reflection and to create more connections. Even when you are sleeping, your brain continues to process the most recent experiences.

Google more than once. Literally and metaphorically. Don’t take the first answer as the only answer. Listen to different arguments. Read more than one article or book on the same topic. Train your brain to learn, not to stick to the effortless answer. Rumi said: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” Challenge your brain not to default to the easiest way out.

Practice makes perfect. There are no shortcuts to real learning. Some tricks might help you accelerate your curve, but you cannot skip the journey. Doing something over and over again doesn’t just make learning easier. It changes your brain — its cells grow and form new connections.

Seven Ways to Exercise Your Brain

“Being a student is easy. Learning requires actual work.”
 — William Crawford

1. Learn something new:

“You cannot open a book without learning something.” 
― Confucius

When you begin a new task, the areas that allow you to pay attention become most active.

Blue or red pill? Both learning a new language or to play a musical instrument will increase your brain fitness. Studying how to use a new software lies somewhere in between.

Try painting or drawing. Even if you don’t like it, training your artistic skills will increase fine motor control and boost your creative thinking. That’s why they teach art in kindergarten. Regardless of your age, your brain needs to be challenged. It doesn’t hurt to borrow tips from how kids learn.

2. Practice physical activity

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain.” — Carl Jung

Your body and your brain are connected. Regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart pumping, improves your memory and logical skills.

Any sport is good. Walking — especially at a brisk speed — is easy to fit in between tasks, but also clears your mind — thus increasing productivity.

Experiment with physical activities that address the mind and body as one. Tai Chi, Yoga or martial arts train the mind as you prepare the body, and the other way around. They also great way to finding balance. Pain and calmness are two sides of the same coin.

3. Make a career change

“I am still learning.”
 — Michelangelo, at age 87

What you do for a living defines who you are, but it shouldn’t. When you are attached to your profession or title, they become your identity. But you are more than that.

A career change doesn’t mean necessarily to go back to college and start all over (though it might be). Don’t let what you are good at limit your possibilities. Explore new options. Learn how to repurpose your skills and knowledge to do something different.

The more you practice something, the less you have to think about it. Being good at what you do, limits your learning potential. Career change is the new normal, opening new possibilities for personal growth.

4. Level up your game

“Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.”— African Proverb

Your brain cells are chatty; keep the conversation going. Or ignite new ones.

The neurons talk to each others using chemical messengers. What are you good at? Don’t get trapped in your comfort zone. By challenging yourself to level up your game, you will keep your nerve cells chatting. Remember: neurons that fire together, wire together.

5. Travel to foreign places

“Do you train for passing tests or do you train for creative inquiry?” — Noam Chomsky”

Your comfort zone is also defined by the space you interact with. If you take the same road every day or sit in the same place, your views will be a repetition.

To visit foreign places is a deep learning experience. If you can travel abroad or to cities that you haven’t been before, that’s fantastic. But you can train your brain to see differently without leaving your hometown.

Visit new places (weird ones). Meet strangers, take the long way home, change your route, walk on the other side of the street you normally choose, get down on a different train station and walk.

6. Journal Your Learning Journey

“Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.” — Benjamin Franklin

Reflecting on your own learning curve will tell you a lot about what kind of learner you are. If you are experimenting with something new, draw your own curve, capture the highs and lows. Find what’s driving your passion and your pain.

Check out this journal routine and see how you can incorporate your learning experience to it.

Don’t avoid the pain, embrace it. Journaling you learning experience will help you focus on mastering your learning mind, not just on the skills you are trying to acquire.

7. Meditate:

“I am not a teacher, but an awakener.” ― Robert Frost

Meditation is the art of taming your mind.

Breathing is both an excuse and a means to an end, but not the purpose itself. Connecting with your breathing increases awareness, relaxing and letting your breath dictate your internal rhythm is a difficult but revealing learning experience.

But when we let go of control, we allow our mind to make other connections. Distractions will always surface, but — as you meditate — you will regain clarity. “Aha!” moments don’t come out of the blue. They are the result of a steady accumulation of information. When you let your brain do its work, you are giving room for those “Aha!” to take the stage.

Also, regular meditation practice increases cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which governs learning and memory.

You don’t need a red or blue pill to learn something new. What comes easy, vanishes with the same speed.

Practice makes perfect. When you master one task, daydreaming and mind-wandering become more active; allowing your brain to liberate its creative juices. It’s also a signal that you are ready to learn something new.

Your brain never stops changing and evolving.

Learning is painful. What you learn is pure joy.