Disciplined vs. Undisciplined Learning

This article originally appeared on the FCR blog on January 5, 2017. Click here to read the original.

We’ve been enjoying (or not enjoying) piano lessons in our house. I’m talking resistence to the max. Emotional outbursts, threats of quitting— all of it. As a parent, I find myself emoting back to my own experience with the piano.

I started lessons somewhere around age 5 and mercifully was allowed to quit in favor of the trumpet at age 11. Practice was rarely something I actually wanted to partake in. Trumpet was a continuation of the same. I enjoyed playing in various bands at school, but my lips would fall off every year at band camp because I couldn’t muster up the drive to practice over the summer.

Then along came the guitar and I fell in love. No one had to tell me to practice because I couldn’t put it down. I was free to explore and learn at my pace. I could listen, emulate, and collaborate. So what’s the difference?

Disciplined Learning

Why does some learning have to be so difficult— like pulling teeth? Whether it’s school or self-guided learning on a given topic, there’s responsibility required to absorb this knowledge. Sure, maybe the delivery could be improved a bit, but you can only dress it up so much. At its very core, this type of learning doesn’t initially evoke much in the way of passion and excitement.

I remember a conversation once with my mom where I was considering a career in music. She told me that if I was going to be a serious musician I would need to learn more about music theory and composition. With eyes glazed over, I remember responding with, “If I have to learn that stuff, no thanks!” I feared music would stop being fun at that point.

Now consider every paper or project you’ve ever had to do for school or work. They all involve disciplined work and research, coupled with deadlines in order to complete. I don’t see a whole lot of fun and passion there either.

Undisciplined Learning

It’s so much more enjoyable to tap into our passion and learn from that place. I think of the myriad of opportunities to learn— whether it’s books, blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, documentaries, or conversations with thought leaders in a given area. These opportunities abound, and like a supermarket, offer extensive variety for our consumption. There’s so much value in this type of learning and discovery.

I really love cooking and doing home improvement projects. Both involve building stuff, and thanks to YouTube and Google, there are recipes and instructions available for just about anything. And best of all, there are no tests or hard deadlines. I can learn what I want when I darn well please. But then again, no one is actually banging on my door to work at their restaurant or build them a house either.

Why we need both

My grandparents gave me their piano several years ago and I was thrilled to get reacquainted with this instrument I had cursed only a couple decades earlier. I’ve found great enjoyment in learning different ways to play chords and actually playing songs. I can sit down at the piano and play music that sounds nice. But, my skills will always be limited— at least until I actually embrace the discipline of reading music, learning music theory, and training my fingers to move a little faster.

I think back to the countless papers and projects I completed in school and the painful discipline required to accomplish that. At the time I didn’t see the purpose, but now I’m grateful for the foundation that laid. I get great enjoyment out of undisciplined writing (AKA Blogging) but that wouldn’t be possible without the discipline part of actually learning to write. This can be applied to just about anything— trades, art, and other skills.

While undisciplined learning can lead to breadth of knowledge and the discovery of new passions, don’t underestimate the importance of discipline. There are foundational skills that allow us to move off the page and create something beautiful.

When I look at the discipline struggle of getting my son to practice the piano, I see the value in helping him push through the resistance. I’m not so sure I would enjoy the guitar nearly as much as I do had my parents not “encouraged” me to take piano lessons when I was 5. Then again, I’m sure my son’s eyes would glaze over if I told him this. Sometimes discipline is like that.

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