Most people learn only by mimicking what other people are doing

Most people, whether by students or not, learn only by mimicking what other people are doing. We see people doing something, and we try it until we gain proficiency. These activities range from the simple – following a step in a standard operating procedure or pressing the green button, to the more complex – racing a car around a track hoping for the best time.

We are hardwired to learn by mimicking. Toddlers learn to stand upright and walk by observing others. Even our animal ancestors learn by mimicry. In fact, mimicry is one of the only ways animals learn. Monkeys learn to climb branches by watching their parents climb from branch to branch. They develop the hand and arm strength over time. They learn which branches can support their weight. And they learn to depend on their tail for stability and security instead of relying on mom. There’s a saying for that.

Humans aren’t too different. We have many more resources available to us. We can read any subject, most college courses are available online, and we can talk about our experiences and ask questions. Despite all these advantages, most of our learning happens by mimicry.

I learned most of what I learned by mimicking others. Even reading and writing – I started these because someone I looked up to said I should read and write. He was a cool dude that got attention from when I didn’t. I wanted attention from chicks, so I decided I’d follow his advice. So, I developed the habits of reading and writing. Fortunately, I liked reading and writing, even though the habits didn’t get me too much closer to having sex with women.

I still wanted to get laid. So, I followed people that spend their lives trying to understand women. I became a student of Patrice O’Neal (a comedian) and Julian Blanc (a “pickup artist”). I learned how women think from Patrice O’Neal and social skills from Julian. I behaved like Julian, and I studied like Patrice. I went out in the world and interacted with women with the two of them in mind. That worked. I started to understand women, and I started to have sex with them.

When I turned to more virtuous endeavors, I followed intelligent, virtuous people that had done it before. The Thoreaus, Petersons, and Senecas – these became my teachers and my lab partners. I studied what they said, and I did what they did. And I found (and continue to find) virtue.

I wanted to be a podcast host. So I followed Anthony Cumia and Geno Bisconte. I talked like they talked. I structured my show like Geno structures his shows. And I created a podcast I was proud of.

Mimicking others is a great way to learn, but it requires two things. It requires following the right person, and it requires understanding what I want to learn.

I choose people that are both experts and people I want to be like when I set out to learn something. Geno has a podcast I love, so I chose him to emulate instead of a generic article online that explains how to host a podcast. Patrice and Julian have lots of sex, so I followed them instead of listening to the latest movie that shows two people falling in love and having sex. The reading and writing I fell into for the wrong reasons, but I emulated the man who could choose what he wanted – and even though I wasn’t searching for that, I found that by reading and writing and emulating his habits. If I never picked up reading years earlier, I never would have got into Walden or Peterson’s lectures.

I needed to understand what I wanted to learn. Each time I picked someone to emulate, it started with a goal (usually sex). From there I could pick someone that is an expert in that field and study from them.

Too many people don’t align themselves with a goal, and many that do don’t align themselves with the right goal. For instance, many people envision success as fame and money and women. So, we choose people to mimic that are celebrities that have those material things.

Athletes and actors end up being our role models, but not because we want to be the best at throwing a football or acting in a major motion film. We emulate them because we want their results.

Athletes and actors get women and fame, but those are results. They aren’t experts in women and status dynamics. Patrice O’Neal and Julian, who studied women in an academic setting and in practice, are much better people to emulate because they know the exact skills and knowledge it takes to accomplish that result.

Most people only learn by mimicking others. The information learned in textbooks rarely translates to real-life activity. Real-life activity is learned with the motivation of achieving the results of the people we choose to mimicking. This style of learning is hard-coded in us, and can be effective if you copy the right people.

College is a good return on investment because it forces you to learn the habits necessary to become an autodidact

College gets a bad rap from my circles of friends and the people I interact with online. Viewing through my different lenses: my economic lens says: “Colleges are institutions that create debt and turn you into a corporate consumer” (which could be good depending on your motives). My productive lens says, “all the skills I apply to my job, hobby, and business I learned on my own. College didn’t teach me those skills.” My conservative value lens says: “Colleges promote liberal politics and force that into the curriculum.” My sexual lens says, “College promotes sexual exploration which leads to the degeneracy of the soul.” Maybe that’s more of my conservative value lens. The lenses overlap.

All of these arguments have merit to them. There’s a strong case that colleges have become politicized and don’t teach practical skills and leave the skill-less graduates in debt that they are unprepared to pay off.

However, there is one skill that colleges still teach in 2018 that is more important now that at any time in history – how to learn. To learn on your own is to be an autodidact. When you can teach yourself any skill, you can, in time, do any job that is given to you. You may face a learning curve and be unproductive initially, but in time you will become more productive for your company and for all the goals that you apply yourself to.

Without going to college and facing the structure those institutions have in place, it would be hard to learn that. It’s hard to pick up how to learn from books or from talking to others. People can communicate the importance of learning. Books and Google can contain all the information required to master any field. But it’s still college that gives a structured approach to learning.

Every college curriculum starts with the 100-level classes that provide a high-level understanding of the material. These familiarize students with the authors and experts in the field and give students an understanding of why the material is important.

The 200 and 300-level courses go into the details of what is important. Students memorize information and learn details that will make them conversational on the subjects in any environment – a job interview, a bar conversation, or a final exam paper. We take tests and write papers to ensure we understand the material. We take labs to see apply what we’re learning in real-world situations.

College curriculum dives deeper until you are in the 400-level courses that get into the expertise of the niches within the field of study. At this point a student is expected to be conversational in not only the why and the what, but also the how to apply the information in the world in order to bring that expertise to the world to hopefully make the world a better place. We take more tests, write more papers, and (hopefully) write a thesis that gives us a chance to structure our thoughts and prove expertise in our field.

This is how we learn skills and information. Even a skill like driving is picked up by having a why (need to get somewhere), learning the what (laws, rules of the road), and the how (how the car works, what the pedals do).

Driving and other “essentials” are picked up by applying this process intuitively. Driving has a tried-and-true method of teaching. It involved classroom instruction, behind-the-wheel driving, practice hours and tests. The structure is very similar to the typical college curriculum described above. College courses are another example of well-defined material. The course education is approved by a committee which means there’s some level of standardization of the material.

Learning skills and information becomes more difficult when there is more ambiguity involved. When a job opens up and there isn’t a formal training for that, or if there is a new technology that must be learned, there often lack the structured education of a college course. It still requires the same process to learn the skill, but many people won’t be disciplined to follow through with the why, the what, and the how.

College makes all these activities – the introduction, the details, and the proven expertise – a requirement. We fail if we don’t do these things.

Even in the least academic fields, take sociological gender studies as an example, we need to go through the rigmarole of tests and papers from 100 to 400-level classes. We become an expert in something – even if it has no application in the workforce, and diminishing credibility in academia. By doing this, we learn something.

Without following this structure, we risk missing something. We risk diving into the details of how to do something without understanding the high-level understanding that would relate our expertise to the world. Or, we risk learning the whats or the whys without learning how to apply it to the real world – like memorizing facts from a book or Wikipedia page.

Without understanding all of this – the why, the what, and the how, we fail to understand information in a way to apply it and make sense of it to others. The information is not useful to the rest of the world, even if we do learn a couple things that we can apply in a game of bar trivia.

Without going to college, we risk never going through this structured approach to mastering a subject. Without that, it is hard to understand the time and discipline it takes to truly master a subject. Learning on the job is hard. It’s much harder when we don’t apply that structured approach to learn a subject in its entirety – a structure college gives us.

Even the gender studies expert, with no real-life skills and decreasing credibility as an academic field, can apply the process of learning to any skill they seek to learn. And that’s why it’s important to be an autodidact, and that’s why college is valuable.

Learning is painful

To learn means to understand more information than we already know. To understand more information than we already know means we don’t know things, we need to find new information, and we need to accept new information. These are difficult, to the point of pain.

Pain is physical suffering, or discomfort. Learning is uncomfortable. To be comfortable is to be content. To be content with our current knowledge and understanding of the world is to be comfortable. To seek more knowledge, and deeper understanding of the world, requires discontentment with what we already know. It requires us to venture out into the unknown, and challenge what we know. Learning can induce physical suffering.

Reading a fact isn’t necessarily learning, even if we never heard the fact before. To learn means to understand, and to welcome an idea into your worldview. To do that, the idea must necessarily challenge the existing ideas that are in your head. To challenge existing ideas is to challenge our beliefs and our understanding of how the world works. We cannot challenge our understanding of how the world works without being uncomfortable. New information may change our understanding of how the world works. To learn requires us to be open to us being wrong about how the world works.

While the stoic promotes contentment in all aspects of life, mental challenge and understanding is the exception. Truth is held in regard as a high virtue by nearly all moral philosophers. It is only when we understand the world that we can make sense of it. When we understand the world, we can approach the challenges in life with courage and with the tools to best handle those challenges. We learn so that we gain the tools to handle these challenges, and so we can have the courage to act and overcome the challenge.

Society in 2018 promotes comfort. We are told we deserve comfort. We are not allowed to offend, because others are entitled to not be offended. But what if people are wrong? If people are wrong and are living in a world where their ideas are damaging – to themselves or others, then those ideas will manifest in behavior if they aren’t stopped or impeded by new information. Learning is key to defeating damaging and dangerous ideas. To promote learning ideas, we must promote the discomfort that comes with learning. It is part of the necessary process.

Without learning new things, people will be unprepared for the world. If they do not learn so that they are not offended, they will surely be offended when they see competing ideas manifest in real life. What if the socialist wants to see her ideas play out in American economics? To not socialize institutions is to go against what she believes is the ideal. She was never told that she had an unrealistic ideal – one that has been well-documented across many fields of study (economics, history, psychology). Should we let her ideal economic strategy manifest itself in the world? Maybe – at least she wouldn’t be offended and uncomfortable.

But what if that comes at the expense of a capitalist? The capitalist believes his economic worldview is correct. He may be offended if we choose to go with the socialist, planned economy because that economic system wouldn’t offend a girl who isn’t prepared for the world because her ideas have never been challenged. This doesn’t work. Ideas manifest in behavior, and ideas should be challenged so that the best ideas manifest. If the best idea doesn’t manifest, there are still benefits to challenging all ideas. The benefits – the chance that bad ideas won’t manifest in reality, will only come to fruition if people are open-minded to new ideas, which necessarily challenge the existing worldview, which is necessarily uncomfortable. Which is necessarily painful.

Something is painful when it makes us uncomfortable. Learning makes us uncomfortable because we must challenge what is known and comfortable in order to learn. Learning is painful.