Two things stand out to me whenever I think about “learning”.
One is an image of my friend, a fellow intern, rushing out of the ER, down the ramp, to meet an ambulance in the middle of the night.
On the surface, I know this doesn’t seem remarkable. We were medical interns back then, and of course hospital staff are supposed to rush out and do whatever they can as quickly as possible for the person who requires medical assistance, right? Except that, for one, our place was at the ER — it was really the orderlies’ job to transfer the patient from the ambulance to the ER. They’re trained to do that. For another, medical training is so tough and tiring and occasionally traumatic that, honestly, if it were me on 24-hour duty, I would be hoping for a quiet night. Yet there my friend was, not just waiting in the ER where he was supposed to be, but going out to the ramp, embracing another thing to do…like he couldn’t even wait to get busy again. We were both there to learn how to become good doctors, but whereas I had subconsciously come to think of it as an ordeal to survive, he was there thriving. He was there to learn so he embraced every opportunity to do it, going above and beyond his own scope of work.
And be honest: a lot of us kind of thought of school that way, right, as something to survive? Most of us went to school, ostensibly to learn, but it wasn’t because we actually enjoyed learning. School was simply part of the way the world worked; it was a prerequisite for adult life.
How many of us would have done our theses if they weren’t required for graduation?
How many of us did a whole investigatory project simply because we were curious?
Not a lot, I bet.
And yet, as kids, simple curiosity was often more than enough reason for doing something no matter how difficult or time-consuming it was. We explored our world. We asked questions. We tried things. We drove our parents crazy with endless “why”s. And we did all that from intrinsic motivations. Because we were curious. Because we wanted to. There didn’t have to be a carrot at the end of a stick. There didn’t even have to be a stick. Learning, investigating, exploring were just part of our nature.
As kids, we actually started out with a great attitude towards learning. It’s just that, somewhere along the way, many of us lost the joy of it.
And speaking of joy — here’s the second thing that immediately comes to mind when I think about learning: medieval and renaissance Italy.
I know, I know. If you’re anything like me till a few years ago, you would probably react to the phrase “medieval and renaissance Italy” definitely not with joy, but with a polite but disinterested “Ahhh…okay….”
Which I completely understand. Unless you were into history as a kid — and I definitely wasn’t, which is why I can relate — it just sounds kind of boring, like a chapter in a textbook with loads of names and dates that you immediately forget the day after the exam. Believe me, I thought that way for decades.
But then, a few years ago, I took a trip to Tuscany. At first, all I wanted was photos in a ridiculously beautiful place, but as I planned my route and read a bit about the area to figure out which places I would like to visit, I was unexpectedly drawn to its rich history of art and architecture and culture. The little funny stories drew me in, like the architectural wonder that started as a group project gone wrong. It helped that I was going to be there as Florence was commemorating the legacy of Anna Maria Luisa de Medici, which led me to read more about the Medici family. (It also didn’t hurt that a TV series about the Medicis had just come out on Netflix, starring Richard Madden.) I had also signed up for a day tour from Florence that included a visit to San Gimignano, and by delightful coincidence, I was reading a book called Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay that turned out to be partly inspired by San Gimignano, and the shock at the end of the book buoyed my emotional connection to the town.
My point is: if I had been required to learn about the medieval and renaissance history of Tuscany, I probably would have acquired just enough familiarity with the topic to pass a test and forgotten about it immediately after. But because I started with something that I, personally, was interested in — even something as shallow as wanting pictures of myself in a Tuscan landscape — and found some other things related to it that I could connect to emotionally — whether it was something funny or thrilling or hauntingly beautiful — I was able to learn so much, retain so much, and gain so much joy out of the experience that I would do it all over again.
And sometimes that’s really all that it takes, right? The right key to open a box full of wonders.
My son watched an episode of Dinosaur Train and now he knows and cares so much more about dinosaurs then if I had sat him down and said, okay, today we will learn about dinosaurs. And having become interested in dinosaurs, he became willing to read the first book of the Magic Tree House, which featured dinosaurs — and then he read the rest of the series, and then he read the whole series again, and again, and again, and again, and now it’s easier to talk to him about stuff like Shakespeare and Leonardo da Vinci and the 1925 dog sled run that transported diphtheria antitoxin to Alaska because those topics have been touched on in books that he has read and enjoyed.
When learning becomes something that you want to do — as opposed to something that you have to do — it makes a world of difference.
It stops being a chore: stops being something to dread, to get through and get over with. Instead, it becomes natural — almost just a by-product, even, of a drive from deep within you. There comes a joy to it, an excitement — and you rediscover the love for learning that you had when you were a kid.