How to develop a passion for topics that bore you

When familiarising yourself with a new topic, remember it’s perfectly normal not to understand on your first try. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When familiarising yourself with a new topic, remember it’s perfectly normal not to understand on your first try. Photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto


I used to be the prototypical young mathphobe: I flunked or barely passed any math course I was forced to take. The young version of me would have been shocked to learn that I would eventually become a professor of engineering, enchanted with mathematics.

I’ve discovered it is possible to learn to like – even to grow to love – subject areas that seem boring or that you once loathed. In today’s fast-changing business environment, the ability to develop new passions is particularly important. Here’s how to do it.

1. Find a seed of motivation: The first step in building passion for a subject you don’t like is to identify a reason to learn it.

One of the best motivators is wishing to make an improvement in your life. Wanting a lifestyle upgrade allows you to make a mental contrast between where you are now and where you want to be, which can be a powerful reason to learn something new.

2. Overcome the pain in the brain: When we even think about something we don’t like or want, it can activate a portion of the brain that is involved in our experience of physical pain. The result can be that your brain diverts your attention away from whatever sparked the pain – you procrastinate.

One of the best ways to overcome procrastination is the “Pomodoro” technique:

– Set a timer for 25 minutes;

– Focus intently for those 25 minutes;

– Reward yourself for at least five minutes when you’re done (music, talking with a friend, getting coffee).

3. Realise it’s perfectly normal not to understand on your first try:When you can’t solve something in the first focus, you’re not stupid, you just need to allow time to toggle to a less-focused mode. This other mode gives your brain a chance to consolidate and consider the material from a different perspective.

4. Build a collection of neural “chunks”: When we’re learning something new that doesn’t come naturally to us, we often skim instead of internalising. But developing expertise involves breaking your learning into focused chunks, then building a greater understanding by adding them together.

Try this exercise: See if you can solve a key problem in the new subject area entirely on paper, without looking at the solution. If you can’t, try it again. And again the next day, and over the next few days. Each day of focused learning, followed by an evening’s sleep, strengthens your new neural patterns, which are “chunks” of learning.

Soon you’ll find that when you look at it, the solution steps will flow quickly through your mind.

The bigger your collection of neural chunks related to solving different problems, the greater your expertise. And the greater your expertise, the more you will like what you’re learning.

By using these four steps, you can develop a passion for a subject you don’t like. Like me, you’ll be surprised at what you can find yourself learning to love.

– Copyright Harvard Business Review 2017

Barbara Oakley is the Ramón y Cajal distinguished scholar of global digital learning at McMaster University and the author of “Mindshift: Break Through Obstacles to Learning and Discover Your Hidden Potential” .


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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