The Art of Complementary Learning

February 1, 2019
Rebecca MqameloPower Skills

“I think you might be doing too much”

If I had a dollar for every time someone said this to me, I wouldn’t need to support my studies with freelance writing! I’ve always been the kind of person who juggles multiple commitments at once. My life is ruled by a kind of subtle FOMO — the thought of focusing solely on one area at the expense of others fills me dread, because I genuinely do enjoy many seemingly incompatible things. I’m currently studying towards a double major in Physics and Economics. I work as a consultant for a cryptocurrency exchange. I keep a blog and do freelance writing on the side. I’m interning at a digital fabrication lab where my projects involve electric circuits, 3D printing and bio design, and a large chunk of my time this semester has been taken up by bachata and salsa dance classes.

A bit much? Someone asked me the other day how I can possibly apply equal commitment to all these things that I love and my answer, quite simply, was just that — when you love what you do, it doesn’t matter how much of it you’re doing. In fact, while most of us go through life begrudgingly applying ourselves to the necessary tasks put before us — perhaps a degree that isn’t suited to us or a job we do just to pay the bills — those activities tend to zap our energy. We place those aspects of our life into a little psychological compartment that says, “I can’t possibly have fun while doing this” or “this area of my life is necessary if I ever want to be successful”. As a result, those tasks become mammoth, often frustrating, the sole challenge of our days — so that the thought of piling on anything in addition seems absurd.

Indeed, I’ve been told that my choices are a little absurd. But here’s the difference: when you integrate your areas of interest — the things that simply make you tick — you find that rather than slowly diminishing your energy and ability to focus on multiple areas, they add to your energy and somehow complement each other so that each task becomes more enjoyable because of the last.

Upon reflecting on my own demanding schedule, here’s what I realized: The reason I’ve been able to do so many disparate activities is that they each fall into an area of my life that I deeply care about. I’m absolutely fascinated by finance and economics, so my economics course worked very well in relation to the work I do with the cryptocurrency exchange. One studies traditional markets, while the other exposes me to a disruptive technology where I can apply those same principles in adaptive ways. This is also where I’ve incorporated my passion for writing and working with people. For the crypto company, I get to interview people in the industry and turn those into articles that examine specific aspects of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies. I get to spend time in direct contact with people who know more than me, and my biggest takeaway has been that people will always be your most valuable form of education.

I grew up in a middle-class family with pretty conservative views on what a “good degree” is, so they’ve always emphasized  science and technology. My physics coursework is extremely challenging, but it’s an area of my academics where I don’t excel with minimal effort, and I think this is important in teaching self-discipline and learning that you can’t be good at everything. But my work at the digital fabrication lab exposes me to the creative and exciting applications of science. Here I work with my hands a lot: building things, designing things, and seeing my ideas transform into tangible objects. I think most students don’t get enough opportunities to tangibly express what they learn, and my time here has taught me so much about Maker culture and why we should all be willing to get down and dirty once in a while.

Lastly, I absolutely love dancing, and eight hours of classes per week has given me a completely different area in my life where I can learn a new skill, destress, have fun, and make amazing friends.

It’s evident that although my life appears fragmented and overcommitted, I am able to relish each task precisely because they all fit so well together. Without one, I don’t think I’d appreciate the others as much. This entire experience has taught me a thing or two about my approach to learning in general.

  1. It’s not about how little or how much you’re doing, it’s about what you’re doing. It’s crucial that we as students are able to wrap our heads around this one. If you find that you’re not doing any extracurricular activities and instead are buried in mountains of stress due to academics alone, I would argue it’s probably because you aren’t allowing yourself to gain perspective through other activities. Exercise and bodily movement are important and so is expressing your creativity. If all you ever do is focus on one area that you may not even find particularly enjoyable, no wonder you feel unhappy about it! The irony is that if your effort is coming from a place of frustration, the harder you try, the less efficient you become.
  1. You must find ways to energize yourself. Have you ever had a bad day, where everything seems to be going wrong and all you want is to curl up in bed? Have you ever felt that way, only to have a single conversation with someone and walk away not even being able to remember why you felt so down in the first place? That person probably energized you. They intercepted the monotony of your mental state with a new perspective. Well, it turns out activities can do that too. For some people it’s sports, for others it’s reading a brilliant book, or playing music. Whatever it is, search for that thing and find ways to incorporate it into your life. You’d be surprised how creative you can be when it comes to making time for the things you actually enjoy - and even better when you can build them into the things you aren’t so crazy about.

The idea that we can optimize our learning is not a new one. One of the core principles of the science of learning is interleaved practice, a process where you mix, or interleave, the subjects you study. “Study” here applies to anything - remember that we are constantly learning, whether it’s through a book, person, or activity! Interleaving has been shown to be more effective than any other method because we develop skills for categorization and problem solving, leading to better long-term retention and the ability to transfer learned knowledge.

In my life, I like to put a spin on “interleaved practice” and call it “complementary or holistic learning.” It implies that everything you do has meaning and draws on the holistic education movement developed in the 1980s. Instead of work-life balance, it’s about work-life integration — which means you take ownership of where you dedicate your time and how much value you derive from the things you do. It also means incorporating important aspects of personal growth into the learning experience. We all have that one thing that is our biggest commitment, but that shouldn’t have to detract from expanding our curiosity and exploring our potential in other areas. Life is meant to be enjoyed - and so is learning!

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Rebecca Mqamelo

Contributing Writer

Rebecca Mqamelo is a young South African currently studying Physics and Economics at Minerva, the San-Francisco-based university that is challenging norms in tertiary education with its emphasis on global travel and experiential learning. In high school, she was a national debating champion and international public speaker. When she isn’t writing articles, she’s interviewing the movers and shakers of the global blockchain community for the media platform she co-founded, On the Block. Her idea of fun is learning Russian and watching Kazakh films.

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