By Leo Babauta

I’ve attempted to learn a lot of things, from several languages to guitar, juggling, chess, several programming languages, history, geography, sports and more … and some of those attempts were successful while others fizzled out.

What was the main difference between success and failure?

The amount of enthusiasm and curiosity I had during my learning.

Imagine a bored kid in a classroom who is being told to memorize facts. He might actually memorize them, but without someone forcing him to do it, he wouldn’t stick with it for long. Nor would he go very deep into it, because it just isn’t important to him.

Now imagine another kid, who is given some fun games and puzzles. Her creativity and curiosity are piqued, and she becomes consumed with solving the puzzles and doing better and better at the games. She might study avidly on her own, without anyone forcing her. And if she became genuinely curious, she might eventually go deep into the subject.

This is what I’ve experienced time and time again … when I’m curious, I’ll keep going, deeper and deeper. When I have genuine enthusiasm, I will stick with something for much longer. But if those are lacking, I’ll drop the learning within a week or so.

So how do we create these learning motivators? Here are some ideas:

  1. Pick something that you’re enthusiastic about. If you pick something to learn because it seems like it would be “good for you,” you won’t really care about it. You won’t really want to go deeper or stick with it for very long. So find something that excites you, that gives you joy, that you genuinely really want to get good at. But what if you have to learn something (like for school) and don’t really care about it? Try some of the next few suggestions.
  2. Find things to be curious about. When you’re learning something, don’t just think, “OK, I have to memorize this” or “OK, I’m going to do these exercises over and over.” Try to also find things that seem interesting, things that you want to know the answers to. Explore these areas. Allow yourself to jump around a bit and follow your curiosity.
  3. Try to get to the bottom of it. When I’m looking into a sub-area of a topic, I try not to just read a summary and feel that I’m done … instead, I really want to dive in and learn as much as possible. What usually happens is that as I go a little deeper, I find there are even more and more areas to explore … and then more and more as I explore those. There is no bottom. That’s both intimidating and exciting. There’s no bottom, so you can give up, or you can keep going, exploring on and on and continually discovering new things.
  4. Find areas where you have little knowledge, and seek out the answers. When I try to do something that I’m learning, and I see that I don’t know how to do it … this is a good indicator that I have a lack of understanding. I can’t do it, or I do it badly, because I don’t truly understand something. So then I try to understand. I will do an online search for answers and read as much as I can, and then try to put it into practice. Then my understanding increases.
  5. Play with others. If I’m learning chess or basketball, for example, playing with other people makes the learning more fun, and also highlights the areas I need to improve. If I know I’m going to play against them again, I’m really motivated to learn more and improve my weaknesses so I’ll be a bit better next time. It’s not about winning or losing, but about learning and practicing so you make progress, and the games are not just fun but ways to measure your progress.

These are just some ideas to start you out — in the end, you’ll need to find your own ways to find enthusiasm and curiosity. But be warned: from my experience, if you don’t make that effort, your learning challenge isn’t likely to go well.