Start with why

I recently came across Paul Lockhart’s amazing essay (rant?). He’s a mathematician, and he’s really unhappy about the way we teach math. The entire essay is worth a read and it opened my eyes to seeing math as an art. But it’s valuable even if you just read the first few pages. He starts with an instructive tale – a musician’s nightmare in which we teach music the same way we currently teach math, instructing on musical notation and technical manipulation for years, reserving playing and listening until college or graduate school. He then does the same thing with painting, imagining that education starts with colors and applicators, keeping students away from the fun part – actual painting – until years later. His point is that we teach math in this backwards way, devoid of joy, creativity, or even the context in which math was invented, and reduce it instead “to a sterile set of ‘facts’ to be memorized and procedures to be followed.” If you feel that math is fundamentally different and so has to be this way, that’s probably because of the way it’s been taught and the way you’ve experienced it, rather than something fundamental about math itself.

Ironically, my own musical education more closely resembles his nightmare than his hope. I played clarinet in middle and high school. We began with the basics of embouchure and fingering, then on to scales. It was never really clear why scales were useful to learn, it was just an assigned task. We never listened to music or watched videos of masters playing our respective instruments. I never heard great clarinet until I listened to Benny Goodman on my own. Each semester was devoted to practicing pieces over and over for the Winter or Spring concert. These were concerts that my friends and I didn’t enjoy and only later found out that the intended audience – the parents – didn’t really enjoy them that much either, except to see their children on stage. Only in the second semester of my senior year, when I had enough credits, did I realize that there was no joy for me in the school band, and I quit. 

Contrast that experience with how I taught myself guitar, around the same time I quit school band. I wanted to learn because I wanted to play with my friends, so I picked up a guitar, learned 3 chords, and immediately began playing songs I knew from the radio. I learned more chords, because then I could play more songs and our jam sessions would be better. I probably made as much or more progress in six months of self-taught guitar than I did with seven years clarinet in the school band, and I had a lot more fun. After a while teaching myself, I found myself an instructor and signed up for lessons. This time around, I gladly learned scales because they helped me to understand song structure and to play solos. I did eventually stop playing, mostly because I no longer had the chance to play with my friends, but even today, I have hopes of picking up the guitar again. I have no interest in the clarinet.

The point of Lockhart’s essay and the lesson behind my musical pursuits is that so often in education and elsewhere, when there’s a lot to be done and learned, we start with the what and the how. What are we doing? Learning clarinet mouth position, fingering, and scales. How do we do this? Daily practice for 30 minutes using this workbook, and having your parents sign your practice log.

Instead, we need to start with why.

When you start with why, the participants will figure out the what and the how by themselves, and they will be more open to learning from others. When you engage people’s interest and passion, they generate their own motivation. When people want to achieve the result, they power through the challenge and drudgery and the effort in order to get there. This is not a new or revolutionary idea, and yet we frequently ignore it. Even if the specific math example doesn’t resonate with you, you can probably think of something else that was taught to you the same way – maybe history or chemistry, or something your parents made you do. Maybe a task at work. In fact, it’s probably harder to think of something that wasn’t taught in this way. We are constantly being told how to get something done, without anyone first getting us to want to do it, other than the reward at the end of the task – a good grade, a paycheck, or a lack of punishment.

Speaking of transactional rewards, starting with why doesn’t mean just telling someone why the topic is important or getting them to resign themselves to the task because it’s required. There’s no shortage of that. Anything you’ve ever done that was labeled “mandatory training” was probably like this – starting with an explanation for why it’s necessary to the company. And the first day of any class commonly has a moment when the teacher explains the importance of the subject. But there’s a big difference between capturing someone’s interest or passion versus explaining to them why they should be interested, or why it’s practical, or why it’s important to the instructor. People are pretty skilled at not being interested in things that are “good for you.”

Actually engaging someone requires thought, effort, and generosity. It’s hard, but it pays off. It pays off because the the why is now something internalized by the participant, and that why will keep them going through the hard parts, the boring parts, and the setbacks. This type of why goes by many different names – engagement, enrollment, buy-in – but they all come down to the same thing, which is a shared purpose. A shared why.

Recall that thing I asked you to think about, that was taught to you without first gaining your interest. Did you give it the best of yourself, or did you put in the least amount of effort necessary? Would you have continued if it was no longer mandatory? Now think of something that might be considered difficult, but you did it for your own reasons. Perhaps it was practicing for a sport, or learning to program, or studying probability so you could play better poker, or knitting, or woodworking, or whatever. Think of how different it felt to work toward your own goal, for personal reasons, putting in the effort despite the fact that it was hard. How did it feel when you accomplished what you wanted? How is that different from when you completed the mandatory work?

If you can get someone to want to do something for its own sake, for the love of it, everything is different. There is precious little of this in the world. The next time you ask someone in your life – your kids, your employees, even yourself – to put a lot of effort into something, step back, and start with why.


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