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Switching to Intrinsic Motivation

Psychological research shows that giving external rewards can decrease the likelihood that someone will continue an activity longterm. This is an important principle for how to school effectively (or rather, how not to): conventional wisdom, which says that rewarding behavior that contributes to desired habit formation is good, is sometimes wrong.

It has been painful to realize how much of my motivation for learning, which I take to be an unqualified good thing, is external. It would still be painful, were it not for my newfound focus on not making my time-allocation decisions moralistic. Some examples: I signed up for MITx’s 6.002x course and stopped it about 6 weeks in, just before the midterm. A large part of the reason I stopped was simply time: I was working 50-60 hour weeks, and with that and family commitments, I felt the work just couldn’t get done (unless I cut out all my relaxing time, which is an ideal recipe for burnout). But my behavior after stopping is illuminating: I didn’t continue as I could, just learning a few topics or following along at my own pace, but abandoned the project entirely. The most painful reason for this I have to acknowledge is that I enjoyed being graded on the assignments and having the prospect of a certificate of completion on the horizon – that was definitely part of it, and I’m not proud of that. There were other reasons, though: (1) I was less enthralled by the specific material in 6.002 as I was intently curious about the MITx project, and the same impulse that meant I couldn’t pass up being part of the pilot meant that I didn’t need to see it all the way through as a subject learning experience to get what I wanted out of it. And (2) It is a big commitment to follow through on 10 hours or more a week of assignments for a course you’re taking alone over several weeks, and I chose to distribute those hours over several more relevant projects.

Which brings me to the second major pitfall in my self-educating methods, the tendency to plan extensively rather than dive into learning something. There’s a certain, odd, amount of fear here–it’s not like I’m going to set off a landmine by trying to learn about the role of tRNA before I’m ready. The worst that can happen with lack of planning in a learning context is that you have to go back to some more primitive concept or learn a concept more slowly, deviating from a plan. I’m still learning that, though, and finding that to really move forward I have to make it a habit to ignore my anxieties about starting a learning project. (This is a maximally general life principle for me: making it a habit to push aside limiting anxieties.)

In the past, I have often relied on standardized tests, syllabi, quals reading lists, and other conventional school benchmarks for measuring “progress” in my learning. For that matter, I’ve always had a lot of anxiety and a strong need to measure this progress–something I’d like to get out of the habit of doing. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not in a degree program at the moment–there’s no benchmark I have to reach that’ll have consequences if I don’t reach it, learning-wise. The only way I can fail is by not learning what I want, in terms of the large-scale bucket-list style learning objectives I have for myself. The other major way I can fail, most dangerously, is failing and not realizing that I’m doing so, by speeding through drills and concepts and not understanding them as deeply as I’d like. While making lists encourages speedy and superficial learning, contributing primarily to the goal of appearing smart by serving as a proxy for having a credential in the subject (“it’s on my list of things I’ve learned”), I know in my heart of hearts that “wanting to look smart” is a false goal I’ve accidentally acquired out of anxiety. The real goal is to learn more in certain areas I’m fascinated by, and not even the ones I just tell people I’m fascinated by and havent’ followed up on.

So, back to studying MIT’s 7.014 intro biology course, with a TV break in between, because we all need them. For another post – how being in a teaching role can exacerbate anxieties about learning, but also how it can help achieve the deeper understanding that is the ultimate goal.

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