A first look at learning, from a slow learner

West Lake, Hangzhou, China

Yixin Tian
by Yixin Tian
5 min read

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According to Wikipedia, learning is defined as “the process of acquiring new understanding, knowledge, behaviours, skills, values, attitudes, and preferences”. That’s a lot to acquire. However, in its essence, I like to define learning as a process of creation, updating, and deletion of knowledge and connections in between.

I love to learn. Unfortunately, it normally takes me a long time to fully understand something. I was quite disappointed when I SLOWLY learned that in university. After all, these days we see keywords like “fast learner”, “steep learning curve” and “fast-paced work environment” pretty often, especially in tech and almost in all the job requirements. It’s frustrating to be slow. It also creates a great fear in me of being left behind, which keeps me up at night. It may seem easy on the surface. I may look like a hardworking student with a relatively decent GPA. Deep inside, life feels like an endless grind for me. I’m always grinding because I feel like I need to spend more time to offset my slow learning speed. Everything centres around learning more knowledge, and if I feel like I’m not learning something new, I feel like I’m wasting my time.

The scariest part came when at some point I realized this mindset had eroded my relationships with my friends, family, and partner and my ability to enjoy other aspects of my life. Finishing exams or achieving goals in general sparks little joy in me as I will be on my way to work on the “next to-do”. Travelling abroad does not feel very exciting anymore since I don’t feel like I’m learning fast enough while I’m travelling. I get bored quickly if the purpose of the event is barely “having fun”.

There are simply too many things to learn, and I would often get upset with myself for not learning fast enough or for forgetting things. Why can’t I understand this part of a paper after reading it three times? or I’ve learned this probability distribution before, why can’t I understand it now? These kinds of questions pop up a lot in my mind. I feel discouraged by the fact that as I learn more, I also forget what I’ve already learned. My mind is like a bucket of water with holes in it. While I’m working hard to fill it, water is flowing out. Even now, as I write this, I have moments when I feel that way.

I’ve been conscientiously working to adjust this mindset. As of writing, I’m still in the process, but progress has been made. Instead of viewing learning speed as a metric which I try to optimize, I began to conceive of slow learning as a distinct style of learning that necessitates very different strategies than quick learners. I’m grateful for all my supportive friends and mentors who inspired me through this process. Without them, none of this would be possible.

For example, it usually takes me longer to memorize material in my long-term memory and internalize it for my own usage. It was difficult for me to remember things without having a comprehensive picture of their relationships with other related concepts. I recall taking a course that required linear algebra knowledge, but I couldn’t even remember what eigenvalue decomposition was at first. To counter that, I’ve tried to develop principles that works for me. I will perhaps write in more details about these principles later. The high-level idea is to retain knowledge, because what is the use of learning if you can’t remember anything when you need to apply it?

I’m also seeing a new, broader definition of learning. It’s not only about learning topics that I’m currently interested in, new programming skills that may help me do better at my job, or other knowledge that I deem “useful”. Learning is happening in every second as we experience this world. Learning through a set of more diverse activities and living a psychologically rich life could be deeply rewarding as new experiences open up gateways to other new knowledge.

In addition, I find that shifting my learning paradigm from content-based learning (i.e. learning through textbooks and videos) to experience-based learning (i.e. learning through doing “cool” things that I deeply care about with friends or alone) makes building meaningful relationships much easier. One of the mistakes I made was that as a Gen Zer, I became so used to consuming stuff on the internet or on my phone that I began to approach relationships as something to consume as well. The result is a lot of superficial coffee chats and networking sessions. I’m not saying all of the interactions are like that. I’m super lucky to have a group of friends both inside and outside of university that inspire me. However, I do want to create more opportunities for “mutual inspiration” so that I can learn and discuss interesting ideas together with more people.

I came across a Latin phrase, Sapere aude, years ago and quite liked it. It was used by Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, in his 1784 essay Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?. Kant argued that it is important to have the courage to use your own knowledge. Sapere aude, meaning “dare to know”, emphasizes our ability to think and reason independently and use our own knowledge.

Everything above led to the creation of this blog. I want to start appreciating other aspects in life more. I want to begin some thought experiments with other like-minded individuals and discuss ideas in the hope that through the process of writing I can spark a new, different learning experience. The majority of my viewpoints will be limited, biased, and imperfect, but that is the point. Therefore, sapere aude can also be the motto of this blog.

In this blog, you will find a mixture of things that I learned from reading, videos, films, friends, strangers, projects that I worked on, work, travelling, adventures, life in general, and other random thoughts that pop up in my mind.

Currently, the blog is organized using tags and categories to keep it simple. There might be a need to create other new sub-pages in the future but we will start from here.

Acknowledgment

Special thanks to Samuel Moor-Smith for making this post better.