How I Learn Things

Learning is an incredibly important part of my life. Even at an early age I would always strive to know new things and figure out ways to solve puzzles. Whether it was building a LEGO kit or finding a way to solve a math problem, I wanted to understand how it worked. Even today learning is still a priority in my life; I built my senior thesis around new learning concepts, and I spent 4 years tutoring high school students during college. With so much emphasis on my ability to comprehend new things, I’ve come to the realization about how I learn and why I value video games so deeply.

When I’m presented with a problem I normally balk at the idea that I’m capable of achieving the goal. Not too long ago I went to a meeting with a group at JPL where they discussed a number of the things on which I’m working, as well as some of the work I could potentially accomplish while they continued to set things up. After the meeting I commented to my professor that I had absolutely no clue how to accomplish anything about which they had asked. I had no clue what they were talking about and was most certainly not smart enough to make any of it work. By the end of the car ride back, however, I had walked through what had occurred in the meeting with my professor and realized that, despite my initial reservations, everything they had said was actually fairly straightforward and definitely something I could accomplish.

I’m saying this because it shows how I initially approach problems. I spend so much time freaking out and thinking so little of myself, yet it usually turns out that I am usually quite skilled at said thing given a little time and maneuverability. Most of my confidence flows directly from the knowledge that I can accomplish anything if I sit down and work at it, but my initial reactions tend to send me overboard because I don’t want to fail, miserably, on my first attempt. This is where I’ve found the reason I love video games and programming – I’m set up to recover from failure.

I talk about this a little bit in my thesis, but I’ll say it here as well. Video games are incredible because they are the purest, simplest form of a learning environment. Oh, look, see that red flashy thing on the ground? Let’s go explore it. Yeah, you’ve probably blown up because of that land mine now, but it’s ok because you get to re-spawn. You get another chance to get past that land mine. Perhaps you’ll begin exploring new tactics to get past it. Maybe you try tossing a grenade or a stick to see if it explodes. Maybe you explore ways to move around the land mine. Maybe you craft an item that allows you to jump over the land mine or dash past it. Games allow you to solve these puzzles in an incredibly interactive way that lets you truly understand why and how this obstruction works the way it does.

Imagine a world like this where you try to solve a math problem. You are asked to, maybe, find the limit of an equation, but are unsure of how to accomplish this. In the video game world you could try your first guess out and see if that first try was right or not; maybe it is and maybe you’ve learned something. However, more than likely, the first attempt was wrong. This isn’t the end of the world, though, because the game tells you you’ve missed the problem. The game can then provide hints to help solve it, maybe through a journal the character has kept or by talking to an NPC. The point is this – failure is completely acceptable because you don’t have to be right immediately. The game isn’t over because you’ve missed a problem, the game encourages you and pushes you to find a way to beat it. Players are given second chances, and they get to work through a problem in a mentally interactive way.

This is how I love to learn. I love being presented with a problem and trying new and interesting things. I know that I’m probably going to be wrong on the first try, or the second, and probably the third. However, I also know that I can solve the problem if I just put effort into it and take the time to figure out why my previous attempts didn’t work. Learning, for me, is all about understanding what doesn’t work and how I can change it to make it work. I don’t want to blindly know that it works – I want to understand the underlying meaning. I want to know what drives it to function like it does. At my core, I seek understanding at the most basic level. That’s how I learn.

Side note: I wish education was more like this. There is so much focus on getting a good grade and getting into a good college, people push true understanding to the side in favor of empty success. Not one month ago I was talking to a Pomona college first year and she stated that she had either the choice of getting a good grade in the class or sacrificing that grade for a better understanding of the material. She, of course, chose the grade. I just absolutely hate that mentality with a passion. What’s the point of meaningless success? It’s just a load of lies wrapped in emptiness.