Embracing Plasticity

In a recent podcast, Waking Up author Sam Harris and tech-guru Kevin Kelly touched on the future of education. When asked what a young person today should study to prepare for emerging opportunities, Kelly suggests that learning how to learn is perhaps the most important skill to graduate with. Technology, he reasons, is changing the world so rapidly that whatever skill we have mastered one day may become quickly obsolete. “We are all going to be perpetual newbies,” says Kelly.

This vision of tomorrow may arouse excitement in natural explorers. For others, however, it may induce anxiety. That’s understandable, after all, since perpetual learning demands a great deal of time and effort. When we pass our youth, learning can become increasingly challenging. We hear often that our brain loses plasticity with age. But the human brain is quite capable of being rewired in incredible ways well into our mature years as revealed by Dr. Norman Doidge in his bestselling book¬†The Brain That Changes Itself. So if we are less hindered by innate ability, what other factors determine the success of learning in adults?

I believe one of the key factors is motivation. One day, you are a master, and then the next, you are a novice again. Repeat ad infinitum. This could lead to a Sisyphus effect. When the sense of accomplishment from having mastered a skill is lost consistently, it has to be compensated for by something else.

One strategy educators can employ to address the Sisyphus effect is making the learning experience as rich and engaging as possible. Learners will derive joy from the actual process rather than from the result itself, thereby inspiring them to engage in new learning experiences. With augmented reality and gamification techniques, the creation of rich learning experiences may go from being nice-to-haves to becoming essential in future institutions and organizations. Taking this direction, however, will demand a fundamental shift in the way we humans live and think.

There were times when people lived in a world that remained largely unchanged over generations. Identities were more or less fixed within isolated communities. Now, as digital technology becomes more prevalent, the world is interconnected; our lives are interwoven. Cultures blend into each other, trends evolve at lightning speeds, our possessions are built to be disposable, and elements on the interface shift around. This fluidity is reflected in nature where things grow and then decay, and weather patterns change unpredictably. Even the elements we falsely perceive to be static are in a constant state of flux at the micro level.

Technology, it seems, is driving us back to a way of life that is – paradoxically – more organic. In order to value processes over fixed results, we have to learn to let go of the fixed identities we hold of ourselves and others (based on career, interests, cherished ideas) and begin embracing the self as an ever-changing entity as it always has been. This realization can teach us how to live with more humility. As life-long learners, we can strive to better ourselves and let go of outmoded thought patterns.

While it sounds almost utopian, we must be careful not to enter this new age blindly. As Sam Harris and others have cautioned, it is also imperative that we evolve with greater human awareness. Self-awareness will help us avoid becoming addicted to and assimilated by our technology (as many have already fallen victim to). Mindfulness practices may offer a solution to help us raise our level of consciousness, allowing us to better moderate our relationship with new reality-bending tools. Human qualities that we treasure can only find their way into the digital era if we make a conscious effort to integrate them into our lives.

Despite some promising outlooks, there are still many questions that remain unanswerable. What will become of the arts? How do human values come into play? Will technology replace our jobs? I guess we can never fully prepare for the unknown. But that is just the unpredictability of life that we must all learn to accept as well. History has shown us entire human communities forced into displacement due to powerful external forces (many of which man-made). Some groups have survived the effects better than others. Perhaps it is not so much whether we can alter what’s to come, but how we choose to meet it when it finally arrives…

And it is already here.


Click here to listen to the conversation between Sam Harris and Kevin Kelly.

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