Aiming Off

Gu Ailing, a Chinese-American woman, has just won an Olympic Gold and her success has been making waves in China with many people latching on to her approach to preparation for her skiing and academic work. Not only has she won an Olympic Gold; she is also at Stanford, so combines athletic prowess with intellectual ability.

One of the striking things about how she describes her success is the way she specifically denies having "aimed for Gold" or "aimed for Stanford"; on the contrary, she maintains that her success in both fields is attributable to enjoying the journey rather than aiming specifically for a particular destination. "The important thing is to enjoy and embrace the process", she says, "Enjoyment is always more important than results".

This approach will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the podcast associaied with this site Unmaking Sense on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Anchor. By concentrating on living the present and extracting as much of the meaning as we can from every present experience we make the most of every day, of education, and give ourselves the best chance to enjoy our journey in a way that is intrinsically enjoyable and so more likely to produce a successful outcome.

Enjoyable learning, like enjoyable practice, is efficient and effective learning. It is just not the case that there are "marks for effort" in the sense in which so many educators have pretended in order to justify an approach to education that claims that suffering now is necessary to earn future compensating rewards. Sometimes people who seem not to "try" prove more successful because their commitment and passion is intrinsically enjoyable and so self-rewarding. They don't live for the future, mortgaging the present in some vainglorious attempt to achieve some future compensatory reward. Instead they immerse themselves in every present activity, every experiment in life, ever contemporary experience, and learn to extract from it as much of its meaning as possible. John Dewey made just the same point in his 1938 book Experience and Education.

Part of the problem is that parents get anxious about what they perceive as "playful" learning because they have not been encouraged to see and appreciate the distinction between purposeful play and experimentation and frivolous play and experimentation. There are times for frivolous enjoyment, of enjoyment for its own sake in the moment, but purposeful enjoyment comes from a passionate engagement with something in the present in a way that furnishes rewards both now and perhaps in the future. That is the lesson from our Olympic skier and Stanford student Gu Ailing: focus on what you are doing; enjoy the moment; stay in the present; explore and discover all that the activity can offer right now. That way our experiments in life become self-rewarding, self-reinforcing, self-renewing: we become lifelong learners en passant because learning ceases to be a burdensome chore and becomes a fascinating, immediately-rewarding pleasure.

Neither acquiring a skill nor learning something under those circumstances need justification from some future reward because the experience of the present is its own reward. If further success comes, then that is a bonus, but the reward we receive in the present can never be taken away.