On Learning

Fri, May 19, 2017 6-minute read

I can vividly remember the setting. It was only the two of us in the classroom. Right after a lecture on Spread Spectrum Modulation (and the associated theory). This friend of mine, B, had a few questions on the lecture but wouldn’t ask the lecturer. For some reason, he believed I might be able to help. In college, I was pretty egoistic. So clearly, I would help.

I sat there explaining the theory to him, explaining the math as I understood it. It was an ecstasic moment. I could hear myself thinking ahead and could visualize the theory unfold in my head. After a point, I was explaining it as the understanding happened a few ms ahead of my speaking inside my moment. It was pure joy, a very first time I experienced this brilliance. I called it my “aha” moment. From that point on, I have purely running behind these moments. And have had them all through my learning and mind you, I am not done learning anytime soon. Though the topics that I go aha over today are vastly different from those that I did in college.

I was academically gifted all through schooling. But then when I think about it, I was an elitist in my class. In those days, my parents were amongst the better educated, english speaking community. While I didn’t think of it as elitist, I got to know of this much much later in life when my friends would open up about these things. It sorta explained why I didn’t have close friends through my schooling but would develop a much closer relationship later on.

I had a lot of questions to my teachers in my classes. Primarily physics. I couldn’t appreciate chemistry and I didn’t, even at that young age, have the patience to sketch well so could never consider biology. In fact, I didn’t even know if I liked biology. I knew I loved math. I loved it that the answers were verifiable. The problems ended somewhere. And I loved it even more, when I didn’t have to arrive at the answer, but just to prove that the answer was correct. I didn’t like to prove it incorrect which usually meant I did the proof incorrectly. Anyway, point is I loved math. And I loved physics. I got introduced to computers very early on, so I was always intrigued by them (till date, I can technically work in a team that designs the processors, yet).

But I don’t remember experiencing any “aha” all through school. So honestly I just could write down everything I studied verbatim, the only plausible explanation to my scores. So that moment in my lecture hall with B was the first such moment. And the very fact that I can remember it so well, close to 13 years later is testimony to how elated I felt. This moment has been so addictive to me, I’d give it the credit to my entire academics and to whatever skill I bring to the table today.

I’ve tried teaching a lot of people in my circle. For most of my early part, I used to be a tyrant. If I knew something, how can you not even understand what I am talking? Everybody just had to be equal. It took a lot of real world experience to know why I was wrong. Even then, I find it very hard to teach people, but am much more patient with them. But I found that my methods weren’t correct. I still tried to teach at a level that I felt was beginner enough. But for a lot of my students, I was already far over their head. Around this realization, I stopped teaching. Now, I just enable them. I give them a lot of references to look up, I give them an overview, I give them the history behind the concept and usually stop there.

More recently, as I baby sit my 18 month old (and carefully following my wife’s guidelines on what not to do), I have learnt to observe him. And I have learnt a lot from him. More importantly, I have learnt that he has his “aha” moments. Which set me thinking: every one has their aha moments. Not necessarily should this be in an academic setting. He get his moments from spotting an earth mover (yeah, he knows one), or from being able to navigate his tricycle by moving the handle bar or from spotting a spider. For a lot of us, these mean nothing. It means a whole lot to him. Perhaps, that’s what was happening to all my students – to all those people I shattered the confidences of. Their “aha” moments are probably unrelated to math or physics or programming. They just enjoy other things.

Lucky for me, I can remember my middle school physics concepts even today but today I can explain the physics behind it where as at middle school I just knew the lines by heart. Until this moment occurs, learning is not a tangible action. It is necessary evil. For a lot us, unfortunately, we never try hard enough to experience that moment ever. We take up jobs, take up loans, build some aspirations  and move on. That’s sort of the truth for a vast majority and it has got nothing to do with a country or its education system or our parents or our culture. It is just human to be scared.  It is just human to be unsure – which Seth Godin explains so beautifully in his book, the linchpin.

Fear is something we feed very early on. Isn’t it a fact that we tell our young ones to eat food or the monster would nab them away? This fear is what keeps people from trying anything. Rarely we teach our kids to ask – “what’s the worst that could happen?”. I wasn’t. I learnt it along the way.

I try to live by this quote. And I’ll say you should too. I’ll reproduce it here:

“Icarus. The original myth had two parts. Daedalus said to his son, ‘I fashioned these wings for you. Two rules. Don’t fly too high, or the sun will melt the wax. But, more important, son, don’t fly too low. Because if you fly too low, the water and the waves will surely weigh down the wings, and you will die.’ We’ve left out the second part of the myth. We don’t say to people anymore, ‘Don’t fly too low.’ All we do from the time they are 4 years old is warn them against hubris. We have created this industrially led structure that says: How dare you.”

– Seth Godin