The leaves are falling, and school is in full swing with exams just around the corner – this is a learning time. The days are getting darker and colder, giving us the perfect reason to curl up with a blanket in a warm place and learn something new. To make learning a habit, you must cultivate your curiosity and make learning easier.
To cultivate curiosity, you must first develop a trunk on your subject of interest. I learned about trunks from a podcast between Peter Diamantis and Tim Urban. The concept was foreign to me, but their explanation of it illustrated the source of my curiosity.
A trunk is the base information you need before the subject becomes interesting. Once you have developed your trunk (a basic understanding), you can easily stick new details to it (leaves and branches).
For example, if you know very little about F1, you will likely find watching a race for hours boring. However, once you learn the rules and know some of the teams and racers involved, your curiosity will spike, and the race will become exciting. You will have developed your trunk.
F1 is trilling, so the amount of knowledge you need to get it from boring to exciting is nominal. Meanwhile, other topics such as astrophysics and molecular biology require you to study for years to develop a trunk big enough for new material becomes exciting to you.
These are the two ends of the spectrum. Still, you will have likely noticed that the more you know about something, the more interesting it becomes. Over the past couple of years, my main trunks have been longevity, habits and languages.
Examples of some trunks
During my previous exploration stage, I spent a lot of time gathering a basic understanding of these concepts. Now that I have a basic knowledge of them, I am passionately curious and want to learn more about them through books, podcasts and conversations.
It has been challenging. My interest in longevity would be inexistent if I did not have to sit through all those biology classes during university. Similarly, my interest in languages has come from struggling to learn first English, then German, and now Czech.
You can build a trunk regarding any topic, but you first must learn how to turn suffering into happiness. This discipline comes from learning to appreciate what you have and understanding the long-term consequences of your actions. Let me illustrate this with an example.
When your trunk becomes a forest
Let’s go back to my language example. In my life so far, I have attempted to learn French, English, Spanish, German, Hebrew and Czech with varying degrees of success. A French-speaking family raised me in an English-speaking part of Canada, so both languages were acquired without conscious effort.
On the other hand, the rest of them have all been self-directed and led to varying levels of success. In Spanish and Hebrew, I failed to develop a trunk. As a result, the languages never became interesting enough for me to continue learning them when my reasons behind learning faded.
Contrarily, my trunk in German was well-formed when I left Germany, and I kept practicing it – though minimally – while living in New Zealand. Now, my understanding of the Czech language is finally becoming substantial enough that the language is becoming interesting to me.
I have digressed too deeply into my language story. But I want to mention something interesting that happened along the way. As I learned – or more accurately, tried to learn – more languages, I became interested in the parts of languages and how to most effectively learn them.
This “how to learn a language” became the forest floor connecting all the different languages. The more I learn – in particular now that I teach English – the more I understand the role of grammatical components in a language. Learning to use a new word is easier when you know what kind of word it is.
How to get started
The more you learn, the easier it gets. The easier it is to learn, the more curious you are. When you start to learn something, you usually have a reason to study it. It could be school imposing classes onto you or other external pressures that require you to gain that knowledge.
Curious must be cultivated. This cultivation is done by reinforcing your reasons for learning that material. It becomes more manageable as your tree of knowledge grows, and you can catch more of the content. The key is to keep going even when it seems difficult or tedious. It is challenging because you still need to grow your trunk to attach the new information more easily.
While I use the metaphor of a trunk, you can also think of knowledge as a spider web. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer compared memory to a spider web. Specifically, he wrote:
“Memory is like a spiderweb that catches new information. The more it catches, the bigger it grows. And the bigger it grows, the more it catches.”Joshua Foer
Depending on your studies, it can take years before you finally have a trunk large enough to catch new information easily, but it is worth persevering. Learning how to learn is a crucial part of a multi-staged life. The more you can cultivate your curiosity, the easier your life will be when you transition from one stage to another.
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