3 Things The Matrix Taught Me About Learning
“Jiu Jitsu? I’m going to learn, Jiu Jitsu?”
If you’ve seen The Matrix, you’ll remember that Neo and his other friends are pretty good at learning. So good that they can learn to fly helicopters and master advanced martial arts in the space of a few seconds without even batting an eyelid.
While there have been some interesting recent developments in the research examining the potential of low current electrical brain stimulation to accelerate skill acquisition we’re still a long way from the type of instant learning on show in The Matrix.
If you read the headlines in the media about this research you might start to think uploading skills to your brain is right around the corner.
For example from Techcrunch: “Researchers Create Matrix-Like Instant Learning Through Brain Stimulation” or from The Telegraph: “Scientists Discover How to Upload Knowledge to your Brain”
Well, I’m sorry to break it to you but this won’t be a reality for some time yet.
You’ll have to put those fantasies of uploading skills on hold for now and focus on what you can do, which is acquire skills and knowledge in a more efficient way than most people have ever dreamed of, using a combination of spaced repetition, elaboration and mixed practice. And that's still not bad in my book.
If the Matrix doesn’t reveal the secrets of rapid skill acquisition directly, it’s definitely done a good job of doing so indirectly for me.
What I’ve found, after watching it more times than I can remember, is that the movie actually touches on a lot of the fundamental issues in learning and skill acquisition and serves as a memorable reference point for them.
To reload your neural circuits if you haven’t seen the film in a while, Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, begins life as Thomas Anderson, working as a software engineer by day and a notorious computer hacker by night.
He believes something is wrong with the world and after meeting with fellow hackers Trinity and Morpheus, he comes to learn that his world is a computer-generated simulation, engineered by machines to keep the human race dormant while they harvest its energy to run the planet.
Before this article descends into a recitation of the entire film from memory, let me tell you why understanding this film has been such an interesting source of ideas about learning and the way I think about skill acquisition.
Here are the 3 things The Matrix has taught me about learning:
One of the first training programs that Neo is put through is one where he has to complete the seemingly impossible task of jumping across from one giant skyscraper to another.
Before Morpheus, Neo’s mentor, completes the task with ease, he tells Neo to free his mind by letting go of the limiting beliefs that convince him the task is impossible (after all, it’s all just a simulation). While Neo doesn’t make the jump the first time, he comes to internalise Morpheus’ teaching later on in the movie.
One of the main barriers all of us face to learning are the mental ones we create for ourselves. Dismissing our ability to learn a language or pick up a musical instrument is like creating a set of unwritten rules that limit our capabilities – creating a world that constrains us rather than setting us free.
These beliefs are characteristic of people with a fixed mindset, who believe their abilities are set in stone as opposed to those with a growth mindset, who believe that their abilities are malleable and can be developed through consistent effort.
It can sometimes take effort to identify these limiting beliefs, just as Neo’s rebirth in the Matrix was not a comfortable experience, but doing so allows us to put these myths about our own abilities to rest and chase after whatever it is that we want to learn.
When Neo meets Morpheus for the first time, he’s offered a simple choice; learn the truth about reality by choosing to swallow a red pill, or take a blue pill and return to his old life with no memory of the Matrix.
What this decision represents for me in the context of learning is the desire to explore the unknown.
The blue pill is everything you’ve ever known or done, everything you’re comfortable with. As humans, we're hard wired to seek certainty and avoid social exclusion.
But as we all know, almost all the learning and growth we experience in life comes from the situations where we step outside of our comfort zone, overcome our fear of failure and challenge ourselves to do something new - that's taking the red pill.
This doesn’t necessarily mean we have to constantly be picking up new skills for the sake of it, because we can also push our boundaries by stepping outside of our comfort zone in a skill we’ve reached a high level in by approaching it in a different way or challenging ourselves to reach a higher level.
For instance, if you’ve reached a basic level of fluency in a language the next step might be to try and give a speech in it or write a published article or blog post.
If you’re learning an instrument, it might be taking on your first public gig and if you’re learning a sport it might be facing off against someone who’s a lot better than you or joining a serious team.
The point is that uncertainty and discomfort is something we should seek more in learning and in life, because that’s where real progress often lies.
In my favourite sequence of the whole film, Neo undergoes his initial training after being unplugged from the Matrix. This consists of the operator Tank uploading a sequence of virtual training programs to Neo’s brain in the space of a few seconds at a time.
At the end of the sequence, where he’s now learned every combat skill under the sun, comes Neo’s iconic line “I know Kung Fu” at which point Morpheus challenges him to a fight in a virtual dojo.
One of the reasons this part of the film is so interesting from a learning perspective is that it always gets me thinking about what I’d want to learn if I had the same opportunity. It sparks the question “If you could download any skill instantly, what would it be? And why that skill and not another?”
This is a fun and novel way of exploring the types of things you might actually want to learn in real life, which can lead to some great insights and take you off on a new track.
On another level, the whole sequence always raises another important question - "If uploading skills to your brain were possible, would you even want to do it?"
What I’ve found from personal experience is that learning is about the journey not the outcome and that the real pleasure almost always comes from gradually improving and enjoying the small victories along the way.
So in this particular case, what Neo taught me is this – stop trying to rush everything and enjoy the process. If we could upload any skill at will, what would be the fun of having them in the first place?
So free your mind, take the red pill and enjoy the journey.
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