// Patrick Louis

Learning and Curiosity

How & why some people have better aptitudes

About a week ago an instructor at university was asking why most students did not try the step by step tutorials at home, or why they didn’t at least read it. He then started a speech, trying to understand us and saying that we would not be able to enter the work world easily with this mindset, and asking students what they thought of it.

“Students nag because they don’t get enough practice and when they have to actually do something they nag that they weren’t prepared enough for it.”

He then asked me and I was speechless. I could not directly come up with the right words to express my opinion and thus I am now writing an article about it. In this article I’ll try to develop on the subject by viewing multiple aspects of it, from descriptions, to social issues, and psychology. Let’s note that there aren’t any particularly new ideas here, a lot of research has already been made in this field (Nice article here).

img1

What makes some people able to solve real world problems more than others? What’s making some others go beyond the scope of their institutionalized studies? What’s the difference between people who study two days before an exam and others who seem like they naturally know how to do the test?

A course is only three months long, which amount to a week of non-stop work. No one will ever grasp a concept in a week, putting aside the mysteries of nature. Assisting to a course is only the tip of the iceberg, it is not supposed to teach a whole idea, it is supposed to initiate thoughts in students so they can start learning and practicing on their own. However, this is not applied thoroughly in the academic world, most are just satisfied with the small portion of knowledge a course can have. They just go to class to study.

There’s a humongous difference between the notion of studying and learning. You might study ten hours a day but not actually learn a single thing. Studying , according to my humble own definition, relates to memorizing, and learning to understanding and grasping ideas. It is true though that in specific cases there is a need to study terms and theorems in order to be able to learn but it’s rarely applicable once the basics have been acquired.

This differentiation matters, it is one tiny gap that can change an individual.

A nice example I like to take is the equal sign. To some it means “the answer is” and to the rest “is equivalent to”. The latter is more correct. “1+1=2”, one and one are equivalent to two but two isn’t an answer. There’s no question here, there’s no need for answers. It’s very common to get confused between those notions and people always tend to go for the first one. I have two anecdotes related to this. The instructor, who I mentioned earlier, always tells us to strive for lazy solutions. He’s referring to a solution that, once done, will scale through time and environment. For most, the lazy solution is finding all the questions and prepare themselves to answer them, or in the worst case, to just avoid questions or knowledge. Here’s a quote from Paul Graham that fits perfectly here:

I confess that I did this myself in college; in fact, here is a useful tip on getting good grades. I found that in a lot of classes there might only be twenty or thirty ideas that had the right shape to make good exam questions. So the way I studied for exams in these classes was not to master the material in the class, but to try and figure out what the exam questions would be and work out the answers in advance. For me the test was not like, what my answers would be on my exam, for me the test was which of my exam questions would show up on the exam. So I would get my grade instantly, I would walk into the exam and look at the questions and see how many I got right, essentially. It works in a lot of classes, especially CS classes. I remember automata theory, there are only a few things that make sense to ask about automata theory.

So it’s not surprising that after being effectively trained for their whole lives to play such games, young founders’ first impulse on starting a startup is to find out what the tricks are for this new game. What are the extracurricular activities of startups, what are things I have to do? They always want to know, since apparently the measure of success for a startup is fundraising, another noob mistake. They always want to know, what are the tricks for convincing investors? And we have to tell them the best way to convince investors is to start a startup that is actually doing well, meaning growing fast, and then simply tell investors so.

Then they ask okay, so what are the tricks for growing fast, and this is exacerbated by the existence of this term, “Growth Hacks.” Whenever you hear somebody talk about Growth Hacks, just mentally translate it in your mind to “bullshit,” because what we tell them is the way to make your startup grow is to make something that users really love, and then tell them about it. So that’s what you have to do: that’s Growth Hacks right there.

So many of the conversations the YC partners have with the founders begin with the founders saying a sentence that begins with, “How do I,” and the partners answering with a sentence that begins with, “Just.” Why do they make things so complicated? The reason, I realized, after years of being puzzled by this, is they’re looking for the trick, they’ve been trained to look for the trick.

So, this is the third counterintuitive thing to remember about startups: starting a startup is where gaming the system stops working. Gaming the system may continue to work, if you go to work for a big company, depending on how broken the company is, you may be able to succeed by sucking up to the right person; Giving the impression of productivity by sending emails late at night, or if you’re smart enough changing the clock on your computer, cause who’s going to check the headers, right? I like an audience I can tell jokes to and they laugh. Over in the business school: “headers?” Okay, God this thing is being recorded, I just realized that.

link to article

Asking the why and how of things is what is needed. On a side note, the students are not always to blame, the teachers sometimes contribute to the vicious cycle of “answering questions” in multiple ways. It is more of a social issue.

As I’ve mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph, society plays a huge role in the way its citizens perceive education. In our current society (mine, and not necessarily the reader’s) education is mostly a simple way of getting a job and making money. It’s perceived as an obligation, a duty that your parents and ancestors have forced upon you. It is not an enjoyable moment! On the contrary the smarts are shamed as wasting precious time that they could spend doing other capitalist activities.

I beg to differ on that view: education should be a magical moment. For instance, Asian societies excel at this. They worship wise men and women, they have exciting study lives, it’s what matters to them. They are in love with discovery. You can notice it a lot in their culture. Their work passionate them all their lives.

When someone chooses their field of study, they’ll also choose their way of life, it’s going to be the reason they walk on this Earth. Thus, the need to master the little knowledge a human being can have because this is what you are worth. You are bound to your knowledge, you are what you learn. There’s a deep attachment between what you work on and your personality, it’s the mirror of your mind.

Consequently, thinking this way makes learning a whole new experience. There’s excitement and meaning in the process of slowly discovering new things. There’s thrill in searches and discoveries. All of it driven by curiosity, the why of the previous section in addition to a feeling of insatiaty. In other words: It should be fun to learn, it should be like getting new spells and leveling up in RPGs. A new thing learned is a new toy. Nowadays, the cool thing is that by simply being curious you can find all the information and materials online for free. That is how I define curiosity and from where it come from. Be an excited curious person.

On a side note, maybe being thought the way of the Asian culture as a kid can help growing the curiosity in children. As a kid I also used to read manga (Japanese comic books) and watch anime (Japanese animated cartoons). However, I have no co-related data and statistics to prove my theory.

In conclusion, we can blame society for not letting people be curious or influencing them in ways that make them avoid being. It makes me sad when my comrades memorize the course without really getting it, it makes me sad when I hear

“Imma just copy paste some code in the exam because the teach’ didn’t tell us how to answer anything in class.”

Now it would be nice if we were able to transfer that excited curiosity from one person to another, or at least influence them in such a way that they can develop it on their own. That’s what I’m trying to do, that’s what teachers should do. I know some who tries and I really respect that.

Cheers, thanks for reading.




If you want to have a more in depth discussion I'm always available by email or irc. We can discuss and argue about what you like and dislike, about new ideas to consider, opinions, etc..
If you don't feel like "having a discussion" or are intimidated by emails then you can simply say something small in the comment sections below and/or share it with your friends.