How to get excited about learning

 

“Energy rests upon love”

 -Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

 

It’s a pretty sentimental quote, but I’ve always loved it. It just feels true: if you are passionate about doing something – if you love it – the energy is there. 

Case in point: it feels easy for me to find the energy to study foreign languages. I am always learning some language or another, which these days means Portuguese (and sometimes German). I can study for hours a week because, well, I love the process of it – discovering cognates and relationships with English, glimpsing different ways language shapes how one sees the world. With language study I am voracious: I hire tutors, read books in the language, memorize lyrics, listen to podcasts, and try and find people for whom the language is a native tongue. 

This is not to say it’s easy. While I do believe people have different aptitudes, it’s more that I have simply feel a deep pleasure in the process. So I have the energy. If you gave me a page of math equations to do, or a new computer program to master? All I would want to do is take a nap.  

Now for the bad news: that’s not the full Tolstoy quote: 

 

“Energy rests upon love; And come as it will, there's no forcing it.”

 

Ok, so if he’s right and there’s no forcing it, what do you do when “forced” by schools to read a book you hate, or study a subject you aren’t passionate about? Let’s be real: high school students often have little choice in what they study. When a student is in a situation like this and asks for advice on how to study, I usually offer a few tips:

  • Look for a way this new book or subject relates to something you do love. I find math so much more engaging when I realize it is an abstract language itself, with its own grammar and history. I find sports more interesting when I learn the history of the game, the biographies of the players, some of the cultural fault lines every sport wrestles with. 
  • Especially if you are still young (but this goes for everyone!) try and “press the pause button” on the part of your brain that immediately assumes you don’t like something…you might just surprise yourself. Your assignment in the moment is to find a cool angle into something, rather than the reasons you are already not interested. 
  • Look for some motivation outside the text itself. For instance, imagine the person who wrote what you are reading is someone who you want to have dinner or date with, a potential boss hiring for a dream job, or a college admissions officer at your top choice school. Imagine how awesome it would be to have something interesting to add to a conversation with someone you actually want to impress? 
  • When all else fails, think of it as practice: mastering a new skill in something you aren’t passionate about is practice for future challenges in subjects you do love. High school will end and in college and beyond, you will hopefully be studying things you do want to study. But it will still get hard. Practice now for what it’s like to do challenging work towards a goal you care about, towards the life you want to lead. 

Finally, remember, the universe is large and there’s no excuse for apathy or boredom. Past assignments you are “forced” to do, always be pursuing something you are actually passionate about. Use your energy level as a clue and a guide: what actually gets you excited to learn more?

Tolstoy is right: you can’t force love. But you can cultivate it. 

-David Z