The end of a formal education shouldn’t mean the end of learning. Even if you never plan to set foot in a school or on a college campus again, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to learn.
But as many people as there are that fantasize about studying world history, picking up a new sport, or learning a foreign language, fewer actually do it. When learning isn’t required, it can seem difficult to motivate yourself to do it. So what motivates us to keep learning, and how do we harness that motivation for ourselves?
Learning after school can seem difficult because of the lack of extrinsic motivators. As a student, you were extrinsically motivated by tests and graded assignments. Even if you had other reasons to learn, such as an interest in the material or a wish to become better at a particular skill, the extrinsic motivations built into schooling were always there to back your other motivations up.
Some people attempting to learn after school try to re-establish artificial extrinsic motivators. But this almost always fails in the long term. Firstly, most people don’t have the discipline to hold themselves to that kind of carrot-or-stick motivation. And secondly, extrinsic motivators don’t work very well anyway. They can create a routine around learning, but unless you have a deeper reason to learn, that learning will never become anything other than a routine.
It’s the same reason why you probably remember almost none of the information you learned in the classes you didn’t care about. If you were studying just to pass the test, you weren’t really taking in the information.
Whatever you’re trying to learn, ask yourself why. Do you want to understand something more deeply? Do you want to prove your worthiness to someone? By understanding our motivators, we can guess whether they are enough to keep us going long-term, and bolster them as needed.
Intrinsic motivators can be separated into three general categories. If you want to know how to do something on your own–say, changing your oil or repairing your clothes–you are motivated by a desire for autonomy. If you want to get better at something because it’s important to you–say, learning to play an instrument because you love music, or learning about a period of history because it interests you–you are motivated by a desire for mastery. And if you want to learn so you can be a part of something–say, learning coding because you have an idea for a life-changing app, or studying politics so that you can work as an activist for a cause–you are motivated by a desire for purpose.
All of these can be effective intrinsic motivators, although they may need to be adapted overtime, as your needs and interests change. For example, if you began learning how to play soccer because it interested you, and then discovered you could help your community by learning enough to volunteer as a youth coach, you turned your initial desire for mastery into a desire for purpose.
Csikszentmihalyi’s Concept of Flow
Our abilities also determine how successful a learning experience is. Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow demonstrates that how well you learn depends on the balance the challenge of the lesson and your ability to learn it. If your ability is approximately equal to the challenge of the task you are undertaking, conditions are optimal for learning. If the challenge is too great for your ability, you will learn at a much slower pace and become easily frustrated. If the challenge is too small, you will be bored, and learn at a similarly slow pace.
When you are learning on your own, you have the opportunity to match your challenges to your ability exactly. However, many people still under- or overestimate their skills. Maintaining motivation for learning requires a lot of introspection and self-honesty.