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Learning to like learning

One of my math teachers in high school had a quote on her wall that said, “If the focus is on learning, the grades will follow.” And to my classmates and myself, this was unwelcome advice. Obviously so. We did not want to delight in the wonders of calculus. We wanted to get into top 10 universities. 

Now I realize the wisdom in her tackily colorful wall poster. I see many, many Duke students fixated on resumes and graduate school, and very few enraptured by the complexities of the world unfolded for them by professors. I do not want to learn. I want As. So when I try to learn, I don’t care. And so I don’t get As.

But deep down, I do want to learn! Sometimes I see the grandeur of biology, of molecules fitting together just so and comprising the tiniest, yet most essential slivers of life. Why do I not sense this wonder more? Because I forget to focus on learning, and instead focus on succeeding. 

Not every assignment is geared towards learning. Some assignments, even at this esteemed institution, err a bit too close to busywork for my comfort. Work stops holding substance and interest. Everything academic is a means to an end, a ticket to high-paying jobs and grad school. So studying is a chore, and socializing a brief respite or in-process distraction from learning. Isn’t knowledge why we are here? Yes, undergrad is a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but four years is a long time to be disengaged. 

I don’t think I’m taking the wrong classes; I think I, and many of my peers, have the wrong mindset. I don’t let myself learn happily. I only strive to be a good grade churning machine. I need to lean in, and I need to love learning. Only then will I both succeed and be truly happy.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified a concept called the “flow state.” The flow state is when you are so engaged in a task, you are able to focus so fully that you lose track of time and achieve full concentrate. It is exalted by productivity gurus. The flow state allows most people to do their best work. Being in the flow state is beautiful and comfortable. 

Yet, I find myself less and less able to reach the flow state in college. And I figured out that it was because I no longer delighted in learning. I treated memorizing and reading textbooks as a task, rather than an exploration. If I am stressed or apathetic, I can’t drift into a flow state. If I grumble about the difficulty and unfairness of a class, harp on its weird testing policies, and concentrate on my new text messages rather than the knowledge before me, I cannot get in a flow state. But being in a flow state grants me the same amount of happiness as a good party, and about five times as much peace of mind.

Why then does my Duke existence not focus on learning, but grades and extraneous worries? Because it is what is thrown at us every second of every day, by our peers, our parents, Sakai. Everywhere we look there is someone having a blast while not doing work, or someone making better grades. I do not want to care so much about grades. They do not bring me joy. I do want to love learning, as it often brings me joy when I let it. And if I focus on learning, on fully exploring the ideas given to me by my pricy education, it stands to reason I should succeed.

It’s not easy to turn your back on the grade fixation, nor does it always seem logical; it is what I determined would let me succeed and be happy. The human experience is vast and complex—the world at large tenfold so. One of the main missions of life is to view and comprehend a few bits of what it has to offer. College is not the only way to do this, but if I’m here and this is how I’ve chosen to traverse life, then I have to learn and enjoy what I’m granted. 

If what I’m learning now is the foundation for what I’ll be doing for years, and I don’t allow myself to savor its intricacies, how will I be happy in my career?

Camille Wilder is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.

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