Learning Through Thrills and Pleasure

Children find studies boring because they don’t have skin in the game. They split light beams in the lab only to confirm an already proven experiment, not to try to question it, or study the conditions when an experiment fails. They do maths only to find a known answer, not to discover better ways to solve a problem.

But children love playing cricket because there’s risk and uncertainty. Unlike studies and school exams, there are no pre-set rules to follow that would ensure a win. Instead, there are strategies to tinker with. There are popular ideas to tweak and modify. No two games are ever alike. Unlike school studies, there’s plenty of experimentation involved in cricket. No wonder they are perpetually bored in schools.

I find the same is true for workouts, meditation, and eating right. There’s no uncertainty involved. Just a set of rules to follow. Too boring! I’m of the (unpopular) opinion that we do most of the things we do just because they are generally recommended. Not because we enjoy them.

As a kid, I found reading books to be an excruciatingly boring activity. I found activities like exercising and running (just for the sake of them) displeasing as well. Unless I was running so that I didn’t lose my breath in a football game, I didn’t see the point in it. Unless I was working out so that I didn’t get knocked out in a classroom brawl, I didn’t see the point in it. Unless I was reading a book to question its content, or challenge the author’s notions, I didn’t see the point in it.

I still don’t see the point of doing something just for the sake of it. Unless there’s an obvious downside of not doing something, I would rather not do it. Sometimes, being short-sighted helps.

In his book Skin in The Game, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about the enterprising attitude of drug addicts—how they would conjure up ingenious and unthinkable tricks when it comes to procure drugs. Had they spent even half of their mental capacity in making money instead of procuring drugs, all of them would have become millionaires.

“Where there was risk on the line, suddenly a second brain in me manifested itself, and the probabilities of intricate sequence became suddenly effortless to analyse and map. When there is fire, you will run faster than in any competition. When you ski downhill some movements become effortless.”

Addicts are smart because they have skin in the game. Taleb also mentions that his knowledge of risk and probability wasn’t derived from reading books, but from actually taking risk in the markets.

Having your skin in the game is the idea of incurring a certain amount of risk of having a downside when things don’t go your way. The captain of the football team has skin in the game. The founder of a company has skin in the game. A person who advices people on how to handle their finances doesn’t have skin in the game, unless he is taking his own advice.

Painful experiences are good teachers. But we cannot wait for adversity to strike every time we want to learn something new, especially when there is a lot of downside involved. Therefore, a better way to learn is through thrills and pleasure.

Doing experiments to find faults in the laws and doing mathematics to find errors in the theorems makes studying a whole new game. Eating right while trying to find the rationale and the faults behind a particular diet makes nutrition more interesting. Racing others or running while playing football provides thrill and pleasure.

When it comes to learning, it’s hard not to mention Richard Feynman. Most of his pursuits have been to satisfy his own (mischievous) curiosities. Feynman was of the opinion that one should not do experiments to follow a process, but to understand the process; not to confirm the result, but to rediscover it, question it, and if possible, falsify it. Most importantly, one should do experiments to play with the subject for their own entertainment.

“When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.”

Anything devoid of thrill and pleasure can become boring soon. Life’s too short to do boring stuff, no matter how important they are. All things worth doing should involve some uncertainty, some risk, and complete ownership. Let’s flip the narrative to introduce thrill and pleasure in our everyday activities. Especially in the activities of children.

If you have skin in the game, boring tasks like reading financial statements can become pretty interesting, because rather than accepting the data at face value, you are trying to read between the lines. Often, you are also trying to find out if there’s any foul play.

Thus, doing a business is more thrilling than doing an MBA. Doing physics in the lab is far more interesting that studying physics from a book. Similarly, making decisions is far better than studying decision making.

Change the game. Introduce some chaos. Have fun with it.

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