Why We Learn

Studying is not doing

Here’s how I prevent myself from needless purchases on Amazon: I put things in my shopping cart. Clicking that ‘Add to Cart’ button feels like purchasing the thing long enough for my brain to get the little dopamine drip of buyers’ satisfaction.

Our brains are very easy to trick via pantomime.

I’d venture to guess that 80% of the books on history, business, and science go unread by the person that purchased them. When a person is interested in a topic, buying the book usually satisfies the curiosity because their brain confuses owning the book for having the knowledge.

In its own way, studying can be the same type of trap. I know because it’s one I love to hurl myself into.

Studying a subject feels like progress, but it isn’t. I studied Japanese for two hours a day for almost six months back in 2014. By the end I could read the street signs as I walked around my neighborhood in Koenji, I could sometimes order food, and I could hold a 5-minute conversation with exactly zero people.

If I had instead spent those two hours a day – close to 300 hours in total – speaking with people in Japanese, then by the end of those six months I would have increased my practical vocabulary and comprehension by 30x. And I would be able to say with confidence that I spoke Japanese for months, rather than saying I studied it.

To make this idea even clearer, imagine the difference between a beginner that studies guitar tabs from a book for a year before picking up an instrument, versus the beginner who picks up a guitar and plays it from day one without a theory book. Obviously the studier knows nothing about the playing.

We make this mistake for a two reasons.

First, we’ve been trained. From the age of five, schools orient us towards studying over performing, theory over practice. Ingestion and recitation are treated as accomplishments. Parents scoff when their kids ask them “what’s the point of learning trigonometry,” but this question is the dying gasp of minds that (correctly) perceive the uselessness of theory in isolation. It’s not that the concepts in history class are deficient, it’s that memorizing them without practical application is like memorizing a recipe for President Obama’s Chili without ever making it. “What’s the point?” is the only rational response.

In time, we are rewarded enough via grades and praise and promises that this will all be Important that we forget that we ever saw through the bullshit. We confuse studying for the destination, rather than the map.

The second reason we make this mistake is fear.

Plenty of brilliant people have written about how fear prevents us from taking creative leaps. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic and Seth Godin’s The Dip are two books that lay the case out (and what to do about it) beautifully.

However, the reality is that the person that is freshly motivated after reading one of their books can still fall into inaction. We’re scared to risk our ego, to wager our savings, to be vulnerable in public, to ask for help; at the same time, we genuinely want to take a leap. So we decide to “take the first step,” which is buying a book about the subject, or taking an online course, or signing up for a service that helps us track or plan or structure. we fall into the studying trap, as our brain confuses the studying of the thing for progress.

It’s a year later, and we’re still not a writer or a programmer or a photographer or an entrepreneur or a Spanish-speaker or a world-traveler.

Studying is not progress. It does not move you forward. Knowledge is not its own reward. Rewards are rewards. Helping people is a reward. Human connection is a reward. Exciting experiences are rewards. Knowledge is a tool. Tools are useless without application. But they are much easier to obtain.

Owning the most knives doesn’t make you the best cook.

Only recently have I come to realize that I need to spend the next few years emptying my toolkit and using my hands.

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