As I’ve noted here before, I’ve recently become obsessed with the sense of smell — which has been an interesting experience, for several reasons.
One reason: this obsession has reminded me about the nature of learning. I’ve been struck by how much I’ve learned in the last few weeks. I went from knowing almost nothing about the scent of smell to knowing… well, quite a bit more. And without any effort, any drilling, any assignments on my part. Quite the contrary. I’m gulping down books, jumping around websites, eager to learn more, more, more.
The same thing happened when I was working on my Churchill biography. In college, I’d taken classes that covered World War II, and I had to force myself to do the reading, and I struggled to memorize the facts. But through the lens of my limitless fascination with Churchill, I couldn’t get enough of these materials, and I remembered facts easily.
And what’s strange — for me, at least — is that this interest clicks in so suddenly.
Two months ago, if you’d handed me Chandler Burr’s The Perfect Scent: A Year Inside the Perfume Industry in Paris and New York, I would have been only mildly interested. But last week, I was racing to the library to get it off the shelves. Same thing with Churchill. I went from mild interest to wild curiosity in the space of an hour. I remember that hour very well.
The desire to learn strikes me as quite significant. Sheer curiosity! It’s so powerful. When researchers tried to identify the factors that allowed third and fourth graders to recall their reading, it turned out that the students’ level of interest in the material was very important — thirty times more important than how “readable” the material was.
I was talking about this aspect of learning with a friend, and she said, “So you’re saying, being motivated to learn makes the learning process easier.”
“No!” I answered. “There have been plenty of times when I’ve been motivated to learn, but I didn’t desire to learn.” Law school, say. I was highly motivated to learn, but I had to make myself learn the material. And I saw people around me who loved the material, who learned effortlessly.
In the past, I might have fought against my interest in the sense of smell, out of a belief that it was unproductive to spend so much time and energy on it. Now, however, I let myself follow such interests as far as they lead — and these passions give me great happiness. Happiness from my interest in the subject, and also from the happiness that comes from the atmosphere of growth created by gaining knowledge.
I started asking my friends, “Do you have an area of weird, crazy knowledge? Where you know far more than most people, without making a special effort to study? A limitless curiosity about a particular subject?” A surprising number of people answer “Yes.” How about you? Do you have an area where you have an intense desire to learn? And that subject could be anything — baseball statistics, song lyrics, anything.
This subject makes me want to pull Johnson’s Life of Samuel Johnson off the shelf, because I keep being reminded of passages that I know I shouldn’t quote at length here — so the next best thing is to re-read them all.