Because I Want To - Learning for Learning’s Sake

“Why bother?” is a question that saddens me every time I hear it. It’s usually in response to another person sharing their efforts in learning a process, task or about a subject that interests them.


The question is rooted in a belief that has permeated our society like a cancer. That belief is that the only reason we should do something is in order to reach a desired outcome, something "worthwhile". And, that for some reason the process we use to get there is irrelevant, the only relevant measure being whether or not it can be achieved efficiently.


Widget Production

Learning something because we have to or because we’re supposed to is what we experience in school. Teachers have a set curriculum to follow and, for many, this includes a specific prescription with which to both deliver the material and evaluate the students’ grasp of it.

p. 178 - [T]he brighter, more serious students were the least desirous of grades, possibly because they were more interested in the subject matter of the course, whereas the dull or lazy students were the most desirous of grades, possibly because grades told them if they were getting by.

p. 179-80 - Grades really cover up a failure to teach…But if the grades are removed the class is forced to wonder each day what it’s really learning…The removal of grades exposes a huge and frightening vacuum.
…You have to provide some goal for a class to work toward that will fill that vacuum.

p. 183 - To live only for some future goal is shallow. It’s the sides of the mountain which sustain life, not the top.
— Robert Pirsig, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

The whole process saddens me because for so many of us, the material is of no interest, and in some cases feels irrelevant to what we want for ourselves. That’s what happens when learning is imposed (which incidentally also makes measurement of compliance mandatory).

Wonder Production

But that’s not the way it has to be, at least once we’re old enough to decide for ourselves.

Certainly, there are some things we need to learn in any new job or field but hopefully, the desire to be able to apply the learning in the real world is fuel enough to keep our interest and even enough for us to go above and beyond what is “required learning”.

I find the pervasive idea that the payoff to learning has to be some externally-rewarded outcome demoralizing. It tells me that so many people don’t bother striving to reach their unique potential—as defined by their happiness and personal fulfillment—because there’s no certainty that it will lead to an outcome others will consider successful: better career, better pay, fame, recognition, notoriety, popularity, respect/awe.

As an example, I’m sure you’ve heard that successful people tend to be heavy readers. They read to learn about all sorts of topics. Some go deep in a subject matter, while others prefer to take broad sweeps of various topics of interest. What they have in common, however, is that they feed their minds. Sure, they may have a specific goal in mind but often they’re simply consuming "brain food".

Mind Your Mind

Just as we eat and drink to sustain ourselves, individuals who seek to develop their knowledge, understanding and abilities fuel their minds as a whole, which helps them develop their thinking and problem solving potential. In many cases, it’s the process itself that’s rewarding. In many of us there exists a near-insatiable appetite for personal growth and learning feeds it, keeping it at bay for a time.  

Some might decide that all these successful individuals are reading and learning as a means to an end but I fundamentally believe it goes beyond that. The feeling of discovery, the “lightbulb” moments that learning delivers energizes the soul. It sparks creativity, wonder, even critical thinking and the evaluation of options for ourselves and our work that we would never become aware of without the exposure to new ideas, methods, beliefs and/or concepts.

[reading Thoreau’s Walden] - Sometimes we have spent a whole evening reading and talking and discovered we have only covered two or three pages. It’s a form of reading done a century ago…
— Robert Pirsig, Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, p. 36.

Reading new things, trying new things, doing things differently doesn’t have to be attached to a reason, purpose or desired outcome. It can just be something we do because we’re curious. Children do this natually, until they learn that it’s “just play” and that play is a waste of time unless it’s directed, structured in ways that makes it “constructive”. 

So go ahead and learn about or try your hand at something new. You have a reason that’s good enough in my books if you simply answer “because I want to”. In fact, it’s music to my ears.

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