A guide for my learning journey

A college junior questioning his own field of study, or a learner musing on the pursuit of knowledge?

Sometimes you don’t even need to question everything. — photo courtesy of Red Letter Christians

A few nights ago I was reading Joi Ito’s AskMeAnything on reddit (he is the director of MIT Media Lab. Fascinating character). I stumbled upon a fascinating concept: Inter-disciplinary and Anti-disciplinary. The metaphor he used is a piece of paper with black dots, each representing a discipline. Interdisciplinary is when you draw a line connecting these dots. Anti-disciplinary is when you realize the white space in between. It doesn’t fit anywhere because it is everywhere. It doesn’t connect with any dots.
There is a difference between being the line and being the empty space itself, the in-between.

To explore in the interdisciplinary space, we can ask ourselves “How is this similar to that?”, such as “What can molecular biology teach us about sustainable design?” or “What happens when we combine moral philosophy with economics?” (answer: Effective Altruism). We make novel connections. Doing it is taxing for the mind because it requires us to first uphold different groups of concepts while exploring further within each of them to find a common strand. The mind needs to develop enough capacity, then to fill itself with these thoughts and then to process them. It is a constant alternating process of zooming out to see what is overlapping, then zooming into the overlap to see clearly what is there and actually drawing the connections. A nimble mind is comfortable with this process of zooming in and out.

To explore in the anti-disciplinary space, on the other hand requires a different kind of thinking — or should I say nonthinking. It requires observation with the “beginner mind” — a Zen concept of seeing everything anew — and a deep sense of wonderment. I am not trying to see anything in particular. I simply follow whatever grabs my purest attention, my deeper way of knowing, my intuition.

I thought of another metaphor: interdisciplinary is when I open my fridge and find some lemon grass and Mexican refried beans. I have always liked both but never tried combining them. I decide to make a soup and it tastes good — successful endeavour! I discover a novel recipe for myself.

Anti disciplinary is when I go for a long walk, wandering on the streets following the beautiful trees. I pick up a flower — wonderful smell — and bring it back to my dining table. I get hungry so I reheat the refried beans and am surprised at how it suddenly tastes so good today. Maybe it is the flower’s frangrance or the act of wandering beforehand? I don’t know exactly, but I am sensing a potential way of adding pleasure to the meal. I may try it again to see if it really works.

In both cases, I learn something new. Anti-disciplinary seems more out of place and less goal-directed than inter-disciplinary, perhaps because I can suspend my goal of “trying something new for dinner”. I look beyond the context of making food. Instead, I am aware that as a living human I also need some fresh air, and it turns out that bringing some of the air back to my kitchen is not a bad idea at all. This metaphor implies that in the case of making inter-disciplinary connection there is a clearer sense of the kind of product that I want to create (something to eat). For anti-disciplinary, I don’t intentionally want to create something new. It just happens when I am more aware of what is going on inside (I need fresh air) and outside (the trees are beautiful).


What does this mean for our daily life?

First, call ourselves lifelong learners in addition to the titles or roles we already have. By adopting such identity, we can safeguard against the lethargy of being “good enough” so that we can continually push to become more. At the same time, remind ourselves that we learn not only because we want to use it for something else. Sometimes, we learn because simply because the learning process is fun — the beauty of observation, the joy of discovery or the uncertainty of a question. I know that the older I get, the harder it is for me to learn something just for its own sake, yet my quality of life depends at least as much on what I learned from intrinsic motivation as what I learned from extrinsic one. Curiously, we have somehow dropped our childlike curiosity to learn somewhere along our journey of growing up. Yet no one needs it more than grownup, for learning is an act of self-renewing that will help us stay vital for ourselves and our world.

Second, keep making connections. One definition of learning is to bridge between the known and the unknown. The more connections I make, the denser the network of knowledge in my head, the more likely I can make other connections. Meet more people who care about seemingly irrelevant things and share why these interests matter. Who is to say that I would soon be sucked into one silo of the working world and become specialized? That is not a future I see for myself. When I look into my own future, I see a lot of people. Unclear faces. Just a lot of people. What that means is that my world is going to be radically expanded. It can seem drifting at times, and my duty is to integrate them. This is the inter-disciplinary part.

Third, take yourself out of normal pursuit sometimes. “What do I want to do?” is not always a relevant question. There are times and places to be non-goal-seeking, to be open to experiences and to learn from the emerging future. This is the anti-disciplinary part, and how breakthrough sometimes happen. Cultivating this habit also takes the courage to be alone with oneself, which has become more and more challenging in the modern world as we would rather get busy with work, stuff our head with knowledge or involve ourselves with people under the excuse of “responsibility”. Just because our mind cannot justify these “unproductive” moments doesn’t mean they are not meaningful. That frightful yet wonderful place within us is an infinite fountain of potential too. The most insightful moments in history and in our lives, be a scientific discovery or an artistic creation or a game-changing decision, all share a common feeling: we may not fully understand how it all happened, yet we know instinctively that at those moments we had become a different person. We are in awe with our inner world — what it is, what it can be.

Last, remain ignorant. “Knowing is the enemy of learning”, said Tom Chi, the innovator behind Google Glass. Even better, lean on that ignorance, use it to probe further, to discover more. That is the true meaning of “ignorance is bliss”.