Deep understanding requires (and is a result of) intense personal connection

Learning matters insofar as it influences our future thoughts and actions. In fact, because Understanding requires effortful engagement, learning is only a consequence of a rich tapestry of thoughts and actions woven with those concepts.

Seen through this lens, perfunctory learning activities (“fine, I guess I’ll attend that workshop”) often subvert their own goal. Without personal connection to the ideas, participants’ intellectual participation will be relatively shallow. The tapestry will be woven too loosely; it will soon unravel. Little will be deeply understood.

When an activity’s real purpose is something intrinsically meaningful to the participant, their earnest intellectual participation will naturally produce effortful engagement with the ideas involved. Deeper understanding was not the goal, but it will likely occur anyway. Gumption transcends willpower and confidence.

For curiosity-driven activities in particular, personal connection is the literal precursor; the activities continue only as long as that connection does. The connection between the activity and the intellectual participation is particularly pure in these cases.

John Littlewood (the English mathematician) wrote:

I have tried to learn mathematics outside my fields of interest; after any interval I had to begin all over again.

Jonathan Blow on a HN comment:

  • More broadly, the best and most creative work comes from a root of joy and excitement. If you lose your ability to feel joy and excitement about programming-related things, you’ll be unable to do the best work. That this issue is separate from and parallel to burnout! If you are burned out, you might still be able to feel the joy and excitement briefly at the start of a project/idea, but they will fade quickly as the reality of day-to-day work sets in. Alternatively, if you are not burned out but also do not have a sense of wonder, it is likely you will never get yourself started on the good work.


Littlewood, J. E. (n.d.). Littlewood’s Miscellany (B. Bollobás, Ed.), via Nielsen, M. (2018). Augmenting Long-term Memory.

Last updated 2023-07-13.