SURVIVAL AESTHETICS XXVIII: Learning Is Failing
Happy Thursday, friends. In this essay, I’ll be digging into what learning looks like and how to do it better. It’s a continuation of what I wrote to you guys last time.
I’m very early on my journey of understanding anything, so forgive me for writing as if I know anything at all. I often use what I write as future reminders to myself. Much of my thinking is a mishmash of Zen Buddhism, Transcendentalism, empirical skepticism, and me being a hopeless romantic.
Hope you enjoy.
“Designing is my job. My professional field is communications. This means I illustrate circumstances or conditions rather than making 'things'.”
- Kenya Hara, White
Survival Aesthetics — an amateur’s study of the nonlinear, fractal life and death of everything. How do you live with the knowledge that everything is impermanent?
You can’t cheat death, it will always find you.
You can’t cheat birth, it happens to you before you become aware of it.
So we must recognize the situation as it is.
We can’t rush, because we can’t outrun death.
We can’t slow down, because we’re born again and again every morning.
How does this knowledge change the way we organize our lives?
We must learn to recognize our world very subtly. And in it, we find something very tender and spacious.
The Japanese designer Kenya Hara said we don’t simply see colors, we “feel” them. We feel them in their shapeless, shifting, impermanent sense.
Every moment, the sun shines a slightly more or slightly less oblique light onto perceived objects, which bloom into vibrant summers and fade into dignified winters.
Moegi-iro, the bright green of budding plants.
Asagi-iro, the greenish blue of the leaves of a leek.
No green is the same, and each green tells a story of life and death. You paying attention?
Like colors, the situation all around us is precious and impermanent. The more we grasp to keep it one way or another, the more likely it will find a way to surprise us.
The better we see this situation, the more likely it is for us to tend to its soil and cherish its pockmarks. In doing so, we realize we too are the soil and the pockmarks that need love and care.
Understanding the reality of the situation is what learning truly is. And almost all of us have limiting beliefs on what learning is.
What is Learning?
By most definitions, learning is a process of gaining knowledge or acquiring skills.
But what is there to acquire? Does our supposedly new knowledge appear out of nowhere as neurons in our brain or myelin in our muscles or fascial tissue holding this bag of bones upright?
Learning is a newfound awareness of a situation. You apply your attention in a particular way, and you begin to notice what you previously could not.
"Ah, it is this AND this!"
"It is this and NOT this!"
"It can be both this and NOT this!"
Perhaps you develop a new vocabulary like French or mathematics or ballet to be able to communicate this knowledge. But the vocabulary is in service of returning to the awareness of a situation.
If you are understanding everything “correctly”, you’re not really learning. You’re doing something, and that something might be important. But you aren’t learning.
Learning implies failure. But not failure in the way we have been conditioned to think about failure.
You see, as a society, we have become horrible learners. We fear failure, which we see as a cessation of all that is good, like the failure of crops or the failure of rainfall. We clutch onto what we have, fearing what we may lose if we try to learn.
Our modern education system has conditioned us to fear learning because learning is associated with irrecoverable failure. Getting something "wrong" can tarnish our reputation and status.
We live for the score on that exam. We live for the approval of a boss. The score and the approval become dismembered from awareness and understanding. Our learning process slows down; we become political.
What Did You Expect?
We fear learning because of what it may bring. Stepping out into the uncomfortable uncertainty of a new situation means we may not perform well. And if we do not perform well, we have failed.
Such all-or-nothing, binary thinking.
In nature, failure comes in shades. The baby bird learns to fly by falling repeatedly and, over time, less and less, until it is airborne and will next fall from the sky on the day it dies.
The baby bird did not state "Today is the day I fly" and began flying right away. So don't treat yourself that way, either. Cherish your small beginnings.
Failure is awareness. It is the gap between what you think the situation is and what the situation actually is.
To learn is to embrace failure.
To embrace failure is to weaken the influence of expectations.
To dissolve expectations is to pay attention to what is actually there.
You'll be surprised by what you see.