Why Pointless Learning Still Has a Point

What’s the point in learning anything with no future purpose? Take juggling. Isn’t it just a waste of time when you could be learning something more relevant to your future?

Not always.

photo by Stéfan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

photo by Stéfan (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Lifehacker talks of a University of Oxford study from 2009 that discovered changes in the brain when learning new and complex tasks. In the case of the study, juggling.

This is positive. But hold your horses. It’s hard to come to any bold conclusion straight away:

“MRI is an indirect way to measure brain structure and so we cannot be sure exactly what is changing when these people learn.”

Nevertheless, this may be a sign of how important it is to stretch yourself. You may not want to always look for the easy option.

When you feel like you’re on a roll and you’re getting through everything easily, it feels good to work in that state of flow. We tend to enjoy flow as a productive state and gravitate toward it as much as possible.

But Cal Newport explains that flow is not as useful as the state of strain. When you’re in the flow, there’s nowhere to go. Not much challenges you.

The challenge comes when you introduce something new, difficult, and potentially risky. If you’re not used to juggling, it’s difficult, and you risk dropping a lot of stuff that you’re not meant to drop. Just to clarify, juggling involves keeping stuff up in the air…

The activity of juggling itself may provide few direct benefits for you, yet the magic comes through the indirect qualities of such ‘strain’ on the brain.

I spend more time when learning new things than when dealing with tasks and content I already have awareness of. Although it’s easier to find the state of flow because I’m enjoying and recognising what I’m doing, it isn’t challenging me in a total sense.

I have never learned to juggle. But if I ever wish to, I should jump on it.

Same goes for you. The combination of desire to learn mixed with rising to the challenge is strong. No wonder Josh Kaufman says it only takes around 20 hours to get pretty competent in something new. Forget 10,000 hours to become world class, spend less than one day total becoming good enough. It’s surprising how much you can learn this way.

Strain sounds uncomfortable. It certainly doesn’t sound preferable to flow. But under the right circumstances it’ll bring you far more satisfaction and open your mind to far more than you could imagine. Over the past year or so, I’ve spent relatively little time learning a lot about nutrition, baking, ukulele and guitar, early years learning, and the beginnings of humankind. I’ve also picked up some basics regarding steam engines, the solar system, and physics. Much of it has come about outside of anything I deliberately wanted to learn. Yet I still discovered a lot.

The strain I felt fuelled my enthusiasm further. None of it was easy, but it was multiple times easier than I would ever have imagined. A spark is all it takes. A bit of strain is just as necessary as the state of flow.

New and complex tasks sound scary and time-consuming at first. But it seems that’s the point!

Next time you’re interested in something with no apparent future purpose, it may be one of the most important things you learn.

What are you going to challenge yourself to today?