Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

Uncle Tungsten: Oliver Sacks on Leaving Childhood Fascination

In Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Childhood, Oliver Sacks recounted memories of his younger years being fascinated and consumed by chemistry. Under the familial apprenticeships of his chemist uncles, he enjoyed the exploration of a scientific field with all the joy and wonder a boy could experience in his favorite playthings. Except that for Sacks, his toys were chemicals, including metals and radioactive materials that were much more accessible to the general population in the 1940s.

 

As a chemistry fan myself, I was actually jealous of the hands-on experiments he could do for fun, at home. Not very many college educated chemists would have half of what he got to do as a child. He got to know each element of the periodic table simply out of curiosity and joy.

 

At the end of the book, however, Sacks asked these profound questions on what happened as he entered adolescence. Somehow, his fascination with chemistry faded. I think we can probably resonate on the experience of growing up, and letting go of a childhood fascination.

 

But now all this had changed: other interests were crowding in, exciting me, seducing me, pulling me in different ways. Life had become broader, richer, in a way, but it was also shallower, too. That calm deep center, my former passion, was no longer there. Adolescence had rushed upon me, like a typhoon, buffeting me with insatiable longings. At school I had left the undemanding classics “side,” and moved to the pressured science side instead. I had been spoiled, in a sense, by my two uncles, and the freedom and spontaneity of my apprenticeship. Now, at school, I was forced to sit in classes, to take notes and exams, to use textbooks that were flat, impersonal, deadly. What had been fun, delight, when I did it in my own way became an aversion, an ordeal, when I had to do it to order. What had been a holy subject for me, full of poetry, was being rendered prosaic, profane.

 

Was it, then, the end of chemistry? My own intellectual limitations? Adolescence? School? Was it the inevitable course, the natural history, of enthusiasm, that it burns hotly, brightly, like a star, for a while, and then, exhausting itself, gutters out, is gone? Was it that I had found, at least in the physical world and in physical science, the sense of stability and order I so desperately needed, so that I could now relax, feel less obsessed, move on? Or was it, perhaps, more simply, that I was growing up, and that “growing up” makes one forget the lyrical, mystical perceptions of childhood, the glory and the freshness of which Wordsworth wrote, so that they fade into the light of common day?

 

This change, Sacks felt, happened when he was fourteen years old. Between then and the writing of Uncle Tungsten, many decades passed, and of course, Sacks became a neurologist, author, polymath. While he ended the last essay with these sobering questions, he gave a hopeful afterword. Many decades after his passion for chemistry faded, he found it again, triggered by a friend who sent him a poster of the periodic table with a picture of each element and a little bar of tungsten, his childhood favorite element. With that, a flood of memories overcame him and his old love for chemistry was unearthed. One of the last essays Sacks wrote before he died was about his love for the elements of the periodic table. You can find this essay in Gratitude.

 

I love the contrast Sacks made between learning out of joy vs. necessity, and how one is more poetic, lyrical, the other prosaic and dull. Do you have a childhood fascination that faded away too?

 

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Why Self-Learners Rule The 21st Century

Why Self-Learners Rule The 21st Century

This is the fifth post of a series on Individuality. Check out the firstsecondthird, and fourth article.

 

Self-learners rule the 21st century. Never before has it been so important and so easy to be an autodidact. Why? Because information is abundant and free.

 

If in times past self-learning was optional, today, not so much. Being able to educate ourselves is an essential skill to get ahead in this century.

 

It goes without saying that the Internet has completely transformed the way we learn and interact with information. Knowledge is no longer a privilege owned by a select few, locked up in institutions of higher learning or university libraries; it belongs to the mass. Anyone can access and generate new knowledge, repackage it and spread it back to the public. The cost of transmitting knowledge is close to zero.

 

Yet there is still a cost to be self-educated in the 21st century. It may not be money, but it still requires time and effort on our part. The good news is that it only depends on us. The bad news is that it only depends on us.

 

I’d say take it as good news, because if you embrace self-learning, opportunities await.

 

Because of information abundance, new phenomena emerge in society. New opportunities surface that previously were not prominent. What kinds of leadership are up for grabs in the Internet age? How do you distinguish yourself amidst the chatter, tweets, snaps, and selfies?

 

Here are 4 core ways you can create opportunities for yourself in the 21st century. Hint: all of them require self-learning.

 

Stories, Not Facts

 

With facts only a few keystrokes away, it is no longer crucial to be the person with an encyclopedic brain. Any ol’ John Doe can fact-check. Plus, no matter how much trivia a person knows, he can’t beat the collective knowledge of thousands of people. Wherein then lies the expertise?

 

The pivotal skill is in what one does with his knowledge. It’s not enough to know; you need to process that knowledge and produce something else. Memorization for the sake of memorization is becoming obsolete, unless your work needs to be done without the Internet.

 

Because information is ubiquitous, people naturally get overwhelmed. Out of this information-fatigue, a need emerges for leaders who can make some sense out of the facts. These are the people who can weave information together into stories, see nuances, assess and analyze. They are the ones who can synthesize across different subjects and disciplines, contextualize information, see connections and errors, and discern the signal from the noise.

 

There’s a new breed of leaders and influencers who curates and guides people to go where they need or want to go. Coaches, mentors, and thought leaders who can say, “Pay attention to this. Ignore that,” are born, because people don’t want to know everything; they just want to know the important things.

 

This guiding skill is a subjective one—no two people can do it exactly the same way. There’s no formula that you can plug in for every circumstance. The ones who can seize these leadership opportunities are the self-learners, those who can tap into their individualities to learn and create. They are the ones who can discover and tell their own stories.

 

Intrinsic Motivation, Not Carrots and Sticks

 

Udemy, Coursera, Khan Academy, MIT OpenCourseWare. The world of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) is here, and it’s here to stay. Traditional universities are adapting to this development. Courses and great teachers, previously enclosed within university walls, are now accessible to the world much at a low cost or for free. Does that mean, though, that everyone now is as educated as a top university graduate?

 

Not really, because most people don’t take advantage of them. So for them, it doesn’t make any difference whether there’s one free course or a 4-year’s worth of college degree out there.

 

Who benefits the most from these online courses? Who would sign-up and follow the curriculum? Who will actually stick to the program and finish the whole way through? Only a very small fraction of the population: the highly motivated self-learners.

 

Have you ever tried taking a free online course? It’s quite challenging, because self-education requires greater discipline than imposed learning. When other things compete for your time, especially when you pay nothing for the course, most people would choose to abandon it. Maybe “choose” is not the right word here; most people will let the course be abandoned.

 

There’s a good explanation for this. When it comes to learning, we are trained most of our lives to respond to carrots and sticks—rewards and punishments. When these things are taken away, the external incentives disappear. There’s no major incentive for the learning itself and no punishment when an assignment is skipped. What remains is the intrinsic motivation, which, if absent, then all the MOOC in the world would not make any difference.

 

To take advantage of the world of MOOC, we’d have to re-program ourselves to commit harder and persevere. We ought to cultivate the love of learning and know how to maintain our own curiosity. Further, we should also know what courses to take that will best serve our time. Is committing tens of hours for a course worthwhile to do in the context of our life goals?

 

Of course as humans we still respond to incentives and losses, but the difference now is that we have to know how to set these up ourselves, not relying on someone else’s watch. Know what motivates yourself and propels you to move. Put money into it if necessary; have some skin in the game.

 

The world of MOOC is not education by checklist: fulfilling requirements to get a degree. Rather, it’s a purpose-driven one. You’ve got to make the courses work for you, not you for them. They need to serve your purpose, your goals.

 

Ch-ch-ch-changes

 

With the democratization of information, the dynamic of knowledge also changes. Knowledge morphs in a much more rapid pace than ever before, so it’s easy to be overwhelmed, feeling like you’re always behind, and always playing catch-up. In many fields, it is no longer sufficient to rely on classroom instructions. That degree you aspire to for 2 or 4 years may be obsolete by the time you graduate. The textbooks you study are already outdated by the time they get printed, because much more new knowledge has been generated during the time the book gets edited, compiled, proofread, and printed.

 

It is no longer enough to know a set of knowledge. One has to also know how to manage the changing world; how to always learn and keep up with new developments; how to contextualize knowledge; how to understand the arc in the history of a field. Skills are needed to keep a pulse on new developments without becoming a wired-rat that chases every new and shiny thing. While keeping one eye on new developments, the other eye needs to discern timeless principles through reflection.

 

These skills, which are lifelong assets, are not normally taught in schools. So what you need to do is to complement school with your own learning, because these skills have become essential to succeed. There’s never a time when you can relinquish the responsibility of educating yourself completely to other people. You need to seek them out yourself, develop your own method, find others who have figured it out, and seek pointers.

 

Gone are the days when you can get degrees and sit comfortably on them for the rest of your life. The types of work that does the same thing every single day is fading fast from our society. Those industrial days are gone and they’re not coming back. Today, life is about re-investing in and re-inventing ourselves.

 

Actions, Not Theories

 

Because new knowledge is unpredictable, it’s futile to sit and wait until you know everything to start doing anything. Action is more important than theories. Move and discover, and the learning will happen along the way. Those lessons learned may change too, though, so don’t hold on to pet theories too tightly. Experiment and see what holds true.

 

Practitioners and empiricists are becoming leaders these days. I should mention that the experiments they do are not the ones outlined explicitly step-by-step with expected results, like in school. These are the experiments that true innovators do, discovery by trial and error. Based on the results, they tweak, iterate, and refine.

 

The skill to experiment, to ask questions and develop methods to answer them ourselves, to think, to do, and to evaluate, is much in need today. It requires initiatives and it engages a person’s mind, body, and soul. It’s not easy, but those that develop it are going to be the leaders in this century.

 

 

I hope I’ve convinced you that it is imperative for all of us to develop and refine our self-learning skill. There simply is too much to lose otherwise. The great news is that this skill is not a magical superpower. Rather, it is more like a muscle that exists in every single person. It can be developed. Its growth depends on its usage and continuous practice.

 

Everyone can be a self-learner. I believe everyone has the stuff needed to be a leader in the 21st century and make an impact in other people’s lives. Use them, start taking actions; don’t wait until someone else tells you to.

 

Want more? Check out the others posts in the Individuality series:

Individuality: What Makes You, You

Individuality and Creativity: A Christian Perspective

Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

 

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

Curiosity: The Key to Maximal Learning

This is the fourth post of a series on Individuality. Read the firstsecond, and third article.

 

What is the best way to learn? What is the precondition that ensures a learner gets the most out of whatever it is that she is learning?

 

Great classroom, inspiring teacher, well-written textbook, tools, and interactive software—they all assist learning. But these things are external; they belong to the environment. Is it surprising that the key to maximal learning needs to be internal, something that comes from inside the person?

 

The key to maximal learning is one simple thing: the will to learn. You will learn the most when you want to learn.

 

Curiosity, self-will, the drive to ask, to think, and to do is under appreciated. Yes, it’s talked about in motivational articles and books, but it is still treated as an extracurricular subject. It’s nice to have, but you don’t have to have it to survive. There’s not much program on how to train someone to be curious, especially for adults.

 

We were all curious when we were kids. It was so natural; we went after what we were curious about without much thought. But the growth to adulthood often does not sustain this pattern. I think it’s safe to say that many adults stop learning and being curious at some point.

 

How did we lose curiosity and how to get it back?

 

How to Kill Curiosity

 

Most people associate learning with school; school with the dread of endless classes, assignments, and exams, all of which are imposed upon them. Someone else told them they had to learn. The Pew Research Center in 2015 reported a reading survey that 28% of Americans did not read a book, in whole or in part, in the previous year. When broken down by age, the older people were, the less they read.

 

For most of someone’s first three decades of life, he goes through imposed learning. By this I mean that a set lesson has been prepared for the person and he simply goes through the program step by step. This structure can bring a lot of good, encouraging discipline and systematic learning. It also introduces the person to various subjects before he could develop his own interests. But the weakness in this general system is not in what it commits, but in what it omits.

 

Amidst the abundance of exams and standardized tests, it’s easy to forget to ask the question, what is it that the person wants to learn? How can we encourage him to continue to learn after all schooling is done?

 

The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. Robert M. Hutchins

 

When learning is 100% imposed, a person is on the receiving end of someone else’s will and thought, with no account of his own will. If there is no space to exercise his own curiosity and self-will, is it really a wonder that he grows up into an adult with no motivation for learning? If the curiosity muscle doesn’t get exercised, it will atrophy.

 

Theoretical vs. Practical Knowledge

 

The general arc of our formal education goes from theoretical to practical. Learn the theories first on paper, then go out to practice them years later. The problem is that this gap takes a long time. Some never practice their knowledge until they’re in their twenties. They swim in theories without knowing what they are for; ever heard students say, “Why am I learning this for? I will never use this in my entire life!” By the time they get thrown into real life situations, they would have forgotten the important key lessons and they don’t know what to do.

 

What is missing is the synthesis of all the subjects they have learned in school. How does history connect to math and to the arts and to science? Why as a student in this age do I have to learn all these things? I don’t believe we spend enough time answering these types of synthesis questions.

 

Yet there may be an easier approach to address issues that stem from a theoretically overloaded learning system: practical knowledge.

 

In any class, the practical aspect of knowledge—how does a lesson apply to real life—is always the most interesting part of learning. So why not integrate this as part of the curriculum, not as an occasional insert to the classroom, but as the engine of learning.

 

When the connection between theories and practice happens, two things take place. First, you find out how the theories apply to real life. Oh, that’s what they mean by that. Second, you find out that not everything works like they do on paper, and they are called to make decisions and judgment based on wisdom and character, not just their intellect. This is about practical knowledge, the street know-how to handle what you don’t know, and to exist, live, and work as a full human being.

 

Individuality: An Engine for Learning

 

Exposing students face to face with real life problems would increase the likelihood of someone finding something that incites his interest. Inspiration, instead of lethargy, is more likely. It’s helping them find a personal connection to what they are learning, the birth of their individualities.

 

This feeding to the inner life of a student is the key to breeding self-learners who are motivated to contribute to society.

 

How do we train people who can identify with a problem and seek out the skills needed to solve that problem? How do we empower them and make them believe that they can learn and discover by themselves? If we could teach self-learning, the skill will be an asset that keeps compounding for the rest of the students’ lives.

 

The beauty of falling in love with a problem is that the multidisciplinary synthesis we struggle with in the classroom gets addressed naturally, because not one real life problem deals only with one particular subject. At the very least, it requires you to deal with other people, which automatically necessitate communication skills and empathy.

 

The key point is this: we should use our individuality as an engine for learning. Find what we’re interested in, and learn everything that interest touches. This is even more important when we’re out of school, now that no one’s telling us to study. If we were to grow, then we must exercise our own curiosity and self-will.

 

The good news is that we live in a century in which the democratization of learning is a reality. In the age of the Internet and open source learning, there is nothing that cannot be learned from books and online resources. Experts are a tweet away or an email away, and the 21st century rewards those who are generous with their expertise.

 

Don’t wait. Ask questions, find out what you’re curious about, and pursue it.

 

Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. John Dewey