The Dangers of Instant Gratification Learning

The Internet has democratized learning in a way that is unprecedented in human history. Never before have so many people had such easy access to such vast quantities of information. In the learning space, the Internet is second only to the printing press in its importance. This is a common perspective one hears about the revolutionary impact the Internet has had on learning. But what if there is more at play here? Do the quantity gains outweigh the threat of quality decay? Are we in the golden era of knowledge sharing, or the dark ages of instant gratification learning? Paradoxically, the answer is that we’re in both. Which one is up to you.


Instant Gratification Learning

Here are a few types of headlines that one sees a lot around the Internet:

  • Learn Angular.js in 5 Minutes
  • Learn Mandarin in 10 Minutes a Day
  • Become a Data Scientist in Six Weeks ($100,000 salary and up!)

Sounds great, right? We’d all love to be Mandarin-speaking data scientists in a mere six weeks (and earning a six-figure salary no less.) And with all the spare time we’ll have, perhaps we could pickup classical guitar, pointillism, and bread baking too. As wonderful as this seems, the truth is a good deal harsher. This is archetypal instant gratification learning. It appeals to one of the most basic human desires: situation improvement without major resource investment. But how effective is it really?

The desire to make gains without expending one’s resources (in this case, the gain being knowledge and the resource being time) is understandable. In fact, our proclivity towards this model is part of what has made us so successful as a species. If our ancestors had not been driven to improve their lives with a minimum of energy expenditure, we’d still be picking acorns and trapping rabbits as our primary occupations. Maximizing return on investment is a core aspect of evolution.

Unfortunately, this model doesn’t work terribly well on a human scale (despite its effectiveness on an evolutionary scale.) The fundamental thing that it misses is that true knowledge advancement is hard. It requires sustained effort at a scale that directly correlates with the complexity of what you’re trying to learn. You can pick up a few words in a foreign language in a couple minutes of study, but you’ll never master the intricacies of its grammar that way. You can get an overview of a new JavaScript framework in ten minutes of reading, but that doesn’t mean you will have internalized its fundamental concepts.

I should take a moment to emphasize that I do not fault the writers of articles such as those described above. In truth, I absolutely love these people. For the most part, they are hard-working, devoted practitioners who want to share their knowledge with the world. That is admirable in the highest and I hope that they keep it up. The real danger is much broader — it is nothing short of a threat to the Internet’s very efficacy as a learning tool.

The Internet ecosystem as a whole tends to reward in the short term at the expense of the long term. For the most part, it revolves around more clicks, more likes, and more views — and this is as true for learning material as anything else. It’s no wonder that we end up appealing to the base human desire for maximizing return on investment. But I would suggest that we would ultimately be better off by being more straightforward about realistic outcomes. Imagine if, instead of those described above, you saw headlines like these around the Internet:

  • Learn Spanish in Just Five Years of Devoted Practice
  • Master React.js with this 10-Month Study Plan
  • Become a Web Developer over a Career of Lifelong Learning

I’m sure you have already spotted the problem here. The expected investment required for high-quality learning outcomes is much more realistic, but these headlines don’t do much to appeal to our hopes and dreams. Hard work is, well, hard. And it’s in our genes to want to avoid hard work. But if we want big payoffs, especially in the realm of knowledge generation, then an appropriately commensurate investment is necessary.


Setting the Right Goals

The instant gratification problem is apparent enough, but don’t let that discourage you. The Internet is in fact filled with high-quality resources, just waiting to be exploited. If you want to do so effectively though, you first have to set the right goals. Before embarking on a learning journey you need to decide what you want to get out of it. If you’re going to Brazil for a summer trip, and want to pick up a few words of Portuguese before you go, then five minutes a day is probably about right. But, if you’re moving to Brazil, and expect to be able to communicate with your neighbors, then you had better plan on a much bigger language-learning time investment.

In truth, sometimes instant gratification is enough. Much of the time, the blog article we read to “Learn XYZ in 10 Minutes” is really just an entry point. It’s part of the exploratory phase of our learning journey so that we can decide if further effort is warranted. Of course you didn’t really expect to pick up Ruby on Rails in 10 minutes — you just wanted a quick introduction, and that’s what you got. The danger is when we subconsciously start to lower our expectations for the investment that will be required to meet our ultimate goal. Nothing is more demoralizing than getting to the ostensible end of a learning journey only to discover that you’ve barely made any progress towards your goals. The quickest way to this kind of disappointment is a poorly calibrated set of expectations.

Setting the right goals is a key part of contextualizing the learning resources that you find online. If something sounds too good to be true, then it probably is. It’s up to you to ignore the hype and focus on what really matters. Sure, that tutorial you are reading about “Mastering Novel Writing in 10 Simple Steps” probably won’t make you a best-selling novelist. But you know what? Steps 3, 6, and 9 might actually be great resources. If you use them as a springboard for further exploration, and acknowledge that writing your novel is going to be a long and difficult slog, then you might actually get there.


Shiny Objects

If you’re active in online learning, you’ve probably fallen victim to more than a few shiny objects (I certainly have.) All of those blog posts out there with the wild promises of instant outcomes are clickbait for a reason. They target the most animal part of our brains — the part that wants its reward now. But which of these actually speak to your learning goals, and which are mere distraction? The answer depends entirely on you; however, we can reasonably make a couple of generalizations that might help you along the way.

First, there is a direct correlation between the depth of your learning goals and the size of the investment that will be required to meet them. There is nothing wrong with shallow learning goals, and in many situations they are probably a better target than real depth. Like all valuable resources, the time you have available to you is finite. If you’re merely curious about something, then a shallow depth is probably all that you need. In fact, inordinate time expenditure against that curiosity might very well prove wasteful. However, if your goal is mastery of a given topic, then you’re probably better served by avoiding shiny objects and focusing on fundamentals.

Second, the correlation between offered reward and actual quality is tenuous at best. That is to say, just because an object is shiny (ie. gratifies instantly), neither indicates that it is high quality nor that it is low quality. Some of the instant gratification learning that you find online has very little in the way of real intellectual nourishment. However, there is a lot of very high quality content available for your consumption. Many of the tutorials and learning plans that you find online are indeed produced by legitimate experts. Put in the right context, you can learn a huge amount from these resources.

Unfortunately, separating the wheat from the chaff can be challenging. In order to apportion your learning time effectively you need to first evaluate the resources you are using. Who is the source of the information? Are they an expert in a relevant field? What do other learners think of the material? It might seem unintuitive to spend extra time in this step, rather than simply diving in, but doing so will almost certainly lead you to better outcomes in the long run.


To return to our original question — whether this is the golden era of knowledge sharing, or the dark ages of instant gratification learning — I truly believe that it is both. An interesting thing about the pool of knowledge available on the Internet is that it is growing at an amazing rate. Every new web page, blog post, news article, or tweet on the web is, in a sense, some new piece of knowledge. The problem is in the fact that the vast amount of information available to us is accompanied by an equally vast range in quality. The more information there is, the harder it becomes to find the best of it. If you’re inclined towards the instant gratification side of the Internet ecosystem, you can find it. But if you’re inclined towards real knowledge generation, you can find that too. And to make it even more complicated, most of us are inclined towards both at different times and on different topics.

If you want to make the most of the knowledge resources available to you online, it is first necessary to take the time to chart a path. Indulge in instant gratification when appropriate, and dive into focused study when it matters. If you contextualize the resources that you’re presented with, and ensure that they fit into your learning goals, then the chances of you meeting those goals will improve drastically.