A big part of what makes me me, is curiosity. Following my sense of curiosity has led me down many new paths, and each of those paths has changed who I am. When you’re curious, you learn to see that each thing has its own uniqueness, and its own complexities. You learn to appreciate more things, because you know that beneath the surface, there’s something complex waiting to be discovered. Curiosity, for me, is about wanting to dive into that complexity and see all of it.
If you want to complete some big project, perhaps because of some end goal like a job, money, etc, then it can be hard to find the continuing motivation to complete the whole thing just by thinking about that end result. When you do this, it’s really just the end thing that you want, not the long process of getting there. Accomplishing great things is much easier when you cultivate a sense of wonder. Learn to see your chosen subject as an intricate and complex thing that is worthy of study just by itself.
By choosing to see all the internal and external connections and structures, you start to see the beauty of your topic. Something that may have previously seemed like a chaotic mess starts to become beautiful as you discover the patterns in it. Even as you see more and more patterns, there will still be areas that seem too complicated or too difficult, but this just means that there’s more left to discover.
In the case of languages, each language is its own landscape. There are historical relationships with other languages (as hinted in my previous post showing the similarities between English, German, and Dutch). There are many levels of structure in languages, and each of them can be interesting…from pronunciation to spelling to word morphology, sentence structure, sentence meaning, discourse, etc. Some people write their whole PhD thesis on tiny subsets of these things, so there’s a lot in there to investigate. There are also the many past accomplishments and creations by users of the language. There are many levels of meaning behind the great poets and novelists in each language. There’s no reason to ever get bored while learning a language, because there’s just so much to see.
When you view it this way, the end goal becomes somewhat secondary. You don’t see it every day because it’s in the far future. What you encounter every day is the neat little patterns that form the bits of the language. As you read a book, you might notice words that are related to some other word in another language…like Swedish “nog” that roughly corresponds to German “genug” and English “enough”. Finding little things like that is what interests me about a language, and it keeps me going.
Another example of interesting complexity is the world of birds. When I tell people that I like to go bird-watching, sometimes they ask something like “oh, so you like to count how many crows and pigeons you see?” What’s happening is that they’re failing to see the complexity of life, which allows it to be interesting. If all there was to birds was just crows and pigeons, then it’d obviously be boring. With only two things to see, you’d exhaust the space of possibilities pretty fast.
In fact, at most times of the year in my home town of Vancouver, there are over 150 types of birds that you can find in the surrounding area. In both Winter and Summer, I can take you to some of the parks within the city and show you 30 different types of birds within a half hour. Each one has its own preferred habitat and food, and its own unique behaviours. I can tell them apart sometimes just by seeing their silhouette or the way they fly and the shape of their wings, or just a short sound that they make. Each bird has its own story to tell, and the more you learn about them, the more interesting the whole topic becomes. You can continue studying them your entire life and always learn new things. Who needs to go to a zoo, when you can see more variety out in the world just by keeping your eyes and ears open!
When I meet a new person, I ask them what they’re passionate about. This usually leads me to a complex topic that they have learned to appreciate the details of. Instead of dismissing it based on what I’ve heard previously, I ask them to elaborate and tell me about their favourite parts of that topic. I want to discover what makes them love it so much, and the reasons why they can spend so much time doing it. Almost always, their motivation stems from an appreciation for the complex patterns they find in it…they ways that the complexity is made simple by seeing the patterns. As they continue learning about it, chaos turns to order, strangeness becomes familiarity, and complexity has its base in simple patterns.
Finding this inner beauty and simplicity is something that spans all disciplines. Our mind seeks out these patterns automatically, and as we grow accustomed to them, our mind adapts itself to recognize the patterns at a glance. This process is what takes us from confused to fluent, whether the topic is birds, languages, or physics. If you want to get good at something, then don’t focus on the end goal, but just keep looking for the patterns that make it interesting, and find ways to grow accustomed to it through massive exposure. Exposure is easy to get when you’re an explorer looking into each nook and cranny, trying to figure out what makes everything tick.
As you explore, learn to enjoy the pleasure of discovering some new pattern or detail. This feeling of satisfaction will be repeated over and over as you learn, and it will become your internal motivation to keep going. Internal motivation (that feeling of incremental satisfaction as you proceed) is always far more important than any external motivators that may be present (such as money, parental pressure, grades, goals and deadlines). Your internal satisfaction will lead you to become an expert by squeezing out that last little bit of efficiency, by repeating a difficult phrase or practicing your basketball jump-shot to perfection.
Feeding your sense of appreciation of beauty and complexity will mean that you no longer need the external motivators. You’ll be able to continue your project in the long term, and one day you’ll have become an expert without noticing.