You know that exuberance you feel at the beginning of a new project, when you are so buoyant you float above all negativity, and your inner Julie Andrews is singing her heart out?
That’s how Alfred North Whitehead labeled it. Mathematicians are not known to use words like “romance” but trust one to choose one that perfectly captures how people feel at the beginning of every self-directed learning process.
Whitehead, whose interests went beyond math to philosophy and education, famously described the three stages of learning in his Rhythm or Education, starting with Romance, which is the spark, the emotional engagement, and the limitless possibilities.
Doesn’t this also describe how new year’s resolutions start? We see ourselves waking up refreshed, downing a glass of lemon water before heading off on a run. We see our desks magazine-photo tidy, every piece of paper put in its proper place. We see ourselves responding with patience to our children's less-than-delightful behavior.
The cruel thing is that Romance doesn’t last long. Right on its heels is Precision, which is the stage when abstract becomes concrete, when end results look unrecognizable and even unappetizing in their nascent states and when the sparkling outcome looks decidedly unglamorous.
Rainbows, butterflies, and slow-mo dancing in the filtered light of dusk in autumn do not live in Precision. Instead, it’s densely populated with fundamentals, repetitions, obstacles, boredom, frustration, deadends, and challenges.
The fantasy of performing a spell-binging piano recital in a fully-packed Carnegie Hall is replaced by stubbornly tricky technical challenges and music that should sound much better given how difficult it is. The snaking lines in Barnes and Noble at your book signing are actually red editorial lines crossing out your darling passages.
Is this what learning is then: a bait-and-switch? Excitement luring us into unending toil?
I look at it as wisdom/necessity. Real learning happens only in real work. And real work takes time and effort, lots and lots of effort. Unless the reason to keep going is strong enough, most people will not see it through to fruition.
Speaking of fruition, the seemingly-unending stage of Precision culminates in Generalization. This is the stage when details that didn’t make sense, progress that stalled, loose threads that led nowhere finally come together. This is when the dark clouds in our minds are overwhelmed by the blinding sunshine that broke forth, accompanied by heavenly choruses. Hope reenters our thoughts, energy our bodies.
If you think back in your own experience, these moments feel incredible and profound and fulfilling in a way unmatched by other experiences. Generalization may not be as splashy or dramatic or bodacious as Romance, but the fuel it provides to keep going is equally compelling.
This simple diagram is how I picture the rhythm of education. Yes, there are three stages, and I use only two arrows.
Because Generalization isn’t just an end to a learning process, it acts as the beginning of another.
And this: Generalization as Romance, is how the understanding of learning stages helps us keep new year’s resolutions.
If Romance provides the ignition and fuel for learning, and if Precision uses the fuel, then a successful learning process must be visited periodically by Romance to provide replacements.
But Romance is not something that can be produced on demand, not unlike other uncontrollable phenomena as finding muses and falling in love.
So what can we do when Precision depletes, and Romance is nowhere in sight?
We seek out Romance’s less sexy cousin, Generalization. While it often happens as a direct result of consistent work without external input, Generalization is something we can sometimes call on. How? We shorten the timeline. We narrow the perimeters. And we look for progress.
Maybe you haven’t mastered the fast passages in the Prokofiev Scherzo for piano, but you are getting better at keeping your forearms relaxed, which will help you increase speed over time. That relaxed state has even helped in your tone production in the Chopin Nocturne. Maybe you still haven’t found your voice for this novel, but while writing every day to find out, you have established a writing habit.
Taking time to pause, pull back, and notice: these are the ways we can recognize the Generalization stage that has taken place. And that’s how we can co-opt it to infuse energy and staying power to our new year’s resolutions