The secret to learning

Recently, someone dear to me sent me this letter from Albert Einstein to his then 11-year old son Hans Albert, in which he reveals to be, what many would consider, the secret to learning like a genius.

The letter is as follows:

My dear Albert

Yesterday I received your dear letter and was very happy with it. I was already afraid you wouldn’t write to me at all any more. You told me when I was in Zurich, that it is awkward for you when I come to Zurich. Therefore I think it is better if we get together in a different place, where nobody will interfere with our comfort. I will in any case urge that each year we spend a whole month together, so that you see that you have a father who is fond of you and who loves you. You can also learn many good and beautiful things from me, something another cannot as easily offer you. What I have achieved through such a lot of strenuous work shall not only be there for strangers but especially for my own boys. These days I have completed one of the most beautiful works of my life, when you are bigger, I will tell you about it.

I am very pleased that you find joy with the piano. This and carpentry are in my opinion for your age the best pursuits, better even than school. Because those are things which fit a young person such as you very well. Mainly play the things on the piano which please you, even if the teacher does not assign those. That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes. I am sometimes so wrapped up in my work that I forget about the noon meal. Also play ringtoss with Tete. That teaches you agility. Also go to my friend Zangger sometimes. He is a dear man.

Be with Tete kissed by your

Papa.

Regards to Mama.

 

According to this formulation of successful learning, the secret is simply to follow your heart, and put your energy in those things that matter to you, and which you enjoy. This will usually not only result in learning at a greater rate, in much more depth, and with a greater retention, but it will also trigger innovation and creativity in those areas, resulting in making discoveries and advancing fields of knowledge and experience.

And I agree with all of this, but I do not think that this goes far enough in its analysis. This way of looking at intelligence gives the impression that it is something almost entirely passive. As though we cannot really have anything to do with our intellectual destiny: if I happen to like topics x, y and z, then I will be better than average in them and I may even excel at them; but if I don’t, then there isn’t really anything I can do about it. So the only real merit that someone else — much more intelligent and hardworking than I — has over me, is their natural inclination to like something I don’t happen to like, or liking something more than I.

I think the real question we ought to ask is how can we create this “liking”? What do we have to do to ourselves or to our children, to foster and further develop this natural inclination in any given topic? My personal answer is that the real root of intelligence is a combination of 3 things:

  • circumstances
  • curiosity
  • hard work

circumstances

We don’t always control these. But as we develop and grow, we can equip ourselves with means to modify these circumstances or learn to live with them in a way that does not give us the impression that they are handicaps. So no excuse there!

curiosity

There is a way to look at the world with fascination, as though every observed and experienced phenomena is full of wonders to be explored, analyzed, studied, thought about, theorized… that is curiosity. All children are naturally curious. Their curiosities start with what is concrete, and close, and tangible to them, and if these are developed and encouraged to grow properly, their sphere of curiosities will keep expanding to other fields and areas of knowledge and experience, eventually reaching increasingly abstract domains. This is crucial for developing learning and intelligence, because anyone can learn (or be taught) to start looking at anything and everything with increasing fascination. And in this manner, the person takes their own intellectual development in their own hands, instead of reacting passively only to those things which they like…

hard work

Finally, and perhaps the most important element, hard work. Unless you fall in some exceptional category (rain man phenomenon for instance) which would bring us back to circumstances, chances are that to get anything of significance in life, you have to work for it. Those are the only acquisitions that make you grow. Intelligence is no different. When you look at smart people throughout history and everywhere in the world today, what should strike you first, before their intelligence, is just how hard they work for that intelligence. And that is why I find it important to study their lives, because it forces us to understand their will power, their consistency, their sacrifices, and not only look at their results as though they were just handed to them. Oftentimes, it is not that they were blessed with exceptional intelligence, but we are simply not willing to put in the time, the effort, the energy and the hard work to get to where they are…

Again, and as always, no excuses!

that is all the time I have. What do you think?

peace and prayers

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