Learning …. it’s one of those things that are always at the back of your minds. “I would like to learn a new language”, “I want to learn to tap dance”, “I want to learn to play the guitar”, “I need to learn how to network better” …. Yet, it’s not often at the forefront of everything we do. For that reason, learning companies and training professionals sometimes struggle to get teams and managers to prioritise their learning needs. Companies often must make training mandatory to ensure employees attend training courses, or you might hear about employees who want to attend training just so they get a day out of the office. What happened to the intrinsic motivation for constant learning?
As humans, we are wired to seek knowledge. From the early days, our ancestors sought knowledge about their environments and explored the world in journeys of discovery. The chemical in our brain, dopamine is linked to happiness. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that carries information from one nerve ending to another, preparing our body for action. Hence, it is often assumed that when you enjoy something, for example, you receive a gift, then your brain should ‘light up’ with activity. However, scientists have found that the anticipation of a reward triggered more brain activity than when the reward was received. * What this means is that the act of learning itself should bring joy. It is in learning that we become able to reap the rewards, for instance, to be able to tap dance. Learning is the build-up, and with it brings anticipation and excitement. Of course, it is not always the case that it brings joy. Learning can also be frustrating. It can bring disappointment if we can’t seem to figure out something.
So how do we seek joy in learning, and make it something we want to do constantly, rather than just when we need to?
1. Start Small
It does not always have to be something substantial – like learning a new language. It could be just learning how to write better, or learning to manage meetings more effectively. The point is, doing something is better than doing nothing. You may really want to learn a new language, but you know that realistically, time does not permit that as you are busy at work and have family commitments outside of work. Instead of harping on something you are never going to do (and then feeling frustrated about it and ‘give up on learning’ altogether), aim for small successes.
2. Think Big
Explorers travelled the world and took risks because they wanted to discover new lands. We seek fulfilment in our lives and we learn best when we know what is our end goal. Today, there are more distractions than ever and often an overflow of information. It becomes more difficult for us to retain information, especially as we become more reliant on being able to ‘google for information’ whenever we want. Thinking of ‘the big picture’, and why we want to learn something, will help us to put in the effort, retain the knowledge and use it.
3. Make it a habit
There are many books and articles written about the power of habit. Habits consist of three patterns: cue, routine and reward. The cue triggers an action, which is the heart of the habit, which can be a mental, emotional or physical routine. The action triggers a reward, which helps your brain determine if the routine is worth remembering and repeating. ** Rehabilitation programmes for addictions such as alcohol addictions use the power of habit to help in reforming people. On the same token, learning (or ‘not learning’) can become a habit. If you are in the habit of staring at Facebook feeds on your phone during break times or on the bus, why not replace your routine by scrolling through a language learning app instead? The same cue triggers the action – boredom, but the routine changes and the reward becomes even better.
4. Know what works for you
Not all of us learn in the same way. Some learn better by reading books, some by listening to podcasts, some prefer watching videos, while others might be more hands-on types of learners. Many experts talk about the seven learning styles. Often, we might prefer a combination of two or more learning styles. The key is to understand what works best for you and then to make it an integral part of your learning.
Learning may not be something that always comes naturally. It may be something we have long forgotten since graduation. But once we can make it a part of our lives, we will easily discover the joy of constantly learning.
** Duhigg, Charles (2012). The Power of Habit. Random House.