“Early education makes us mindless” states social psychologist Ellen Langer.
In her book “Mindfulness” Langer argues that from a young age we are taught to focus on goals rather than the process by which they are achieved.
With such an intense focus on achieving goals and high results you may have become locked in a certain way of thinking. “Mindless” is how Langer describes this state.
Instead of asking “How do I do this?” or “How can I do this?” you find yourself anxiously thinking “Can I do this?” and “What if I fail?”. The joy of learning ceases to exist.
It can be tough being a student in a highly competitive, results oriented school system. As Author and Educator Allison Zmuda states –
“In their efforts to do well in school, students have largely become low level bureaucrats who complete the requisite paperwork but suffer from the monotony of the experience”.
Did I care about whether I had a deep understanding of my subjects? No, not at all. All I wanted were gold stars, high percentages and the letter A on my work.
Then almost overnight everything changed.
I got 1 out of 20 on my first test at Law school.
That’s right. 1 out of 20. And boy, did that hurt.
High school had trained me to become a masterful rote learner, capable of churning out hundreds of abstract, sterile facts. But this skill no longer served me well in a system that required you to have a deep understanding of complex ideas.
In my heartbreak of receiving such a lousy mark, I remember asking myself –
“What is the point of going through another 5 years of study if it’s only for a piece of paper? Is there any point if I don’t enjoy myself and grow as a person?”
At that point I let go of my obsession with results. I became fascinated by the process of learning (eg. How does one learn information at a deep level?). For the first time in my life I started to enjoy learning. I mean really enjoy learning. Some subjects gave me such joy and changed my entire outlook on life.
I spend my days exploring original ideas that fascinate me. It’s common for me to stumble across an idea that makes me want to scream out with joy. I only wish it hadn’t taken me so long to arrive at this point.
When you shift your focus from results to the process, not only do you experience greater happiness and fulfilment, but you stop comparing yourself to others. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you compared yourself to another person and subsequently, felt jealous.
Langer argues that often when we feel jealous of another’s accomplishments it’s because we focus on the end result (not the process the person has gone through).
When I first started my PhD I would compare myself to a 70 year old accomplished professor. I found myself thinking “He is so smart”, “Look at these articles he has written…I can’t write like this” and “His ideas are so deep…I’m so simple”.
Here I was embarking on the beginning of my research career comparing myself to a professor who had been developing and thinking about ideas for over 50 years!
This is indeed a trap that many postgraduate students fall into. Langer states –
“They begin their dissertations with inordinate anxiety because they have seen other peoples completed and polished work and mistakenly compare it to their own first tentative steps.
With their noses deep in file cards and half-baked hypotheses, they look in awe at Dr So-and-Sos published book as if it had been born without effort or false starts, directly from brain to printed page.
By investigating how someone got somewhere, we are more likely to see the achievement as hard won and our own chances as more plausible”.
In my experience, learning can be a tremendous source of fulfilment and joy. But to experience this takes valuing the process over the end result and not comparing yourself to others.
The paradox is that when you immerse yourself in the process, you will most likely get a better result and experience far more rewards along the way.