Raihan Kalla

Al Harkan's Blog

Paradox of Learning

The whole point of this writing is to talk about my experience when I was learning extensively about subjects I’m passionate at, while ignoring the conventional, obligatory campus’ credit system. I’m a social student, yes, but that doesn’t stop me to study computer programming, design, film theory, and variety of other subjects like astrophysics, economy, politics, or even a little about engineering. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily make me an expert in those fields, but that’s enough to make me keep wondering of how vast the mystery this universe has, how amazing life and exciting people are, and keep me feel alive (?)

 

The story began when I had a quite long holiday (months) in 2016, and there was a checklist that I hadn’t crossed for a long time, which was to learn code. Computer code. I always knew that I had special interest with that thing, but never paid much attention to that, busying myself with my major in school and organization activities. Until finally I had time to reflect on what I hadn’t done but still eager me to dive in, I decided to kickstart it by myself. The journey wasn’t all easy: I was stressfully stuck on understanding a single line of code many times, repeating a-minute-long video course for like endlessly because I never came to grasp the concept, or once giving up for weeks because my codes didn’t work. Just like the first time we learned to ride a bicycle or driving, or starting to learn a new language, it was hard. And most of the time, it was very hard.

 

 

Jumping to 6 months later, I was still no expert in coding. Haha, no kidding. But at least now I can build my own simple Android apps, personal website, tweak backend settings manually by altering its codes and databases, read some popular programming languages like Java, Python, and sets of typical web development syntax like HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and a bit more. In my leveled-up efforts, I joined Google Developer Group to engage with programming community and enrolled in Indonesia Android Kejar, which later gave me an opportunity to attend the Awarding Night as a speaker to share my experience of learning coding from zero. There are more impressive people out there who’s succeeded in learning programming or even ethical hacking by themselves, which I think are super cool. But I think I know enough to realize how much I don’t know, which makes me understand how long I need to learn more.

 

The point is, no matter how slow or little your progress is, learning is learning, it is always building you up. And progress is progress, which is way better than a stagnation.

 

*

And that, was one story of me learning one thing from zero. I can provide you another story of me learning design or film theory, but this article doesn’t need to be any longer. So, let’s back to the point where I want to talk about: what I learned from those variety of learnings; learning to learn. And because I need to keep this to be about telling my stories, I put aside theories to differ this from lecture-type writing about effective study methods. These are about my findings from my learning journey, what I observed from my struggles, and some about noticing patterns to share so no other people need to relive what I did wrong.

 

Not hardly new findings or literal paradoxes, but I see these partially as the beauty of learning.

 

The Paradox

If my progress of self-taught process was drawn as a graph, it would be something like an exponential graph. The explanation was simple: I spent my first half or more than 6-months period by learning about everything I didn’t know.  Like literally tried to understand everything because I didn’t know where my position was, how far I knew and how far I needed to know. It’s like when you’re a plain alien that came to earth and tried to learn about football: because of you knew nothing about it, you didn’t start to learn structurally from basic rules to basic tricks and finally to perfecting the moves. Instead, you started to learn randomly from ‘kicking’ with hands, shooting from outside the lines, or even scoring to your own goal. It was that chaotic.

 

 

But the moment I grasped the concept map of everything about the subject, it was structured organically like tree branches, and suddenly I could decide which branches I needed to follow and which ones I didn’t need to. By then, the progress was accelerated, like almost exponentially. Because suddenly I didn’t need to learn about how to be goalkeeper deeply if I was about to focus on becoming a striker, nor learning about how to be a defender, winger, or else. I could focus on the bigger picture, the rules, what role I want to take in the game and what lessons I need to learn. The rest is about practicing with cases for improvement.

 

I Can’t Learn A Subject Unless I Already Knew It Before

 

When I realized that I spent more than half of my time only scratching the ground before really lifting off for an actual learning, or in another sentence: “I cannot learn a subject unless I already knew it before”, I coined to myself the term “paradox of learning”. Why a paradox, because the goal of learning was to know -at the least, about something. But I realized that I can never learn about that ‘something’ if I never had a knowledge of it before. But if I already had a knowledge about that ‘something’ before, why would I need to learn about it in the first place?

Sorry if I cannot make it simpler, but maybe this quote from the famous philosopher will help:

 

“(A) man cannot search either for what he knows or for what he does not know. He cannot search for what he knows–since he knows it, there is no need to search–nor for what he does not know, for he does not know what to look for.” –Socrates

 

I bet the quote makes it more confusing. Haha, kidding. I hope you get the point.

 

I tried to dig about the “paradox of learning” and was a bit surprised when I found that there was an actual philosophical discussion focusing on the subject called “learning paradox”, and the quote above was repeatedly being discussed. There are several expressions to explain about the ‘paradox’:

 

  • You must know an idea before you can learn it, but you only learn ideas you don’t know.
  • You can’t learn something unless you already know it, but the process of learning suggests you don’t previously “know” what you are trying to learn.
  • If we do not understand something, then we cannot set about learning it, since we do not know enough to know how to begin.

 

The point is, whenever you plan to learn about something, you must be at the point where you already knew about it partially. But that doesn’t necessarily make you in no need of learning it more; instead, it’s the starting point where you know how much you don’t know, then you can start by learning to fulfill the gap where you still don’t know or able to practice. In other way, if you don’t have a mentor to teach you, you’ll be spending a big part of your starting time of learning by exploring the subjects randomly; scratching the ground, grasping everything from the most random part to the most important, but you will treat it similarly because you still not able to prioritize what you need to learn. But by the moment you get the big picture, you’ll see the essentials, and be able to create your own path of learning and following it accordingly.

 

Don’t give up if you’re really new at learning something.
It’s always hard in the beginning.
It’s just the law called “paradox of learning”.
It’s just like you’re a plane, facing the wind moving on your direction.
But eventually, the wind is the very thing that lift you up.

 

*I’d like to talk further and share my best practices of this experiences, so if you have any question, just reach me at raihankalla@gmail.com

**There’s this good article explaining about paradox or learning by Dr. Matt Moody, Ph.D. called The Learning Paradox

***

 

Epilogue

Outside of the learning paradox, I also have these two takeaways from my self-taught experience, which isn’t even hardly new, but I think no less important than the prior, and need to repeat it here so you’ll have another time to remember.

 

The More I Practice Something New, The More I Will Fail

 

To understand or to know of something is one thing, but to be skilled at something is a whole different level. To know something, you need to read, ask for explanation, and digest it thoughtfully. But to be skilled, knowing is just the baseline; you need to practice, train your muscles and brain coordination. It takes time, weeks, months, years, or even decades. But it’s always worthy of your time.

 

The catch is, the more someone starting to practice, the more failures will stand before her/him. It’s not a bad thing. It’s just how training works. And because everyone, literally everyone, is needed to fail before the eventual success.

 

“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
– Samuel Beckett

 

The More I Learn, The More I Realize How Little I Know/Understand

 

Strangely speaking, it’s just like the wise man said, or just like every proverb that in almost every language on earth have. It’s something about “the wiser someone, the more down to earth someone.” In Indonesia, the kids were taught the line “air beriak tanda tak dalam”, which broadly translated into “rippling water shows its shallowness”. I know it’s just a proverb, but I think everybody need to experience it firsthand. To feel the enlightenment state of someone who thinks she/he knows something, learn more about that something, to finally understand that actually she/he knows nothing. And I guarantee you, knowing nothing won’t make us feel bad, but hopeless yet humble. Knowing that universe is far beyond us yet exciting to be explored, we have an urge to learn. Endlessly 🙂

 

 

Dunkerque (2017)

It was that moment, when I watched “Interstellar” for the 20th times,

That I realized I didn’t just like to write or to read.

More than that, I’m fascinated with stories.

Tell me stories, and we are best friends.

 

So, this is the movie I had been waiting for more than a year, and in my case, I think that’s the first time I was impatiently waiting for months for something to come. I told you that I was waiting for three big reveals in 2017, and beside Dan Brown’s Origin and Tesla Model 3, the other one was this Dunkirk (2017) movie, the latest work of Christopher Nolan. You can call me a Chris Nolan fan boy, that’s fine, because what I did at July 21st, 2017 when the movie first came out was what a fan boy would actually do. I literally ran after hitching an ojek to the nearest theater as soon as my work done in the evening, and didn’t catch a breath until I hold one ticket in my hand. *Yep, I watched it alone even after I promised bang Satria a month earlier to watch it with him, just because I couldn’t help to wait any longer. Not to mention how many times I watched the trailer, studying every released material about the movie, looking up the actors’ profile, and counting the days until the premiere.

 

I had never been that prepared just to see a film, and so my expectation was high. And that’s reasonable because Nolan’s works always live up to it, and he himself who set the bar of expectation so high by making great movies, one after the other.

 

Then I came to watch the movie. And this is more of my experience than a review.

*

 

Source: Dunkirk (2017)

Throughout its 106 minutes length, these are basically my stage of feelings when I watched the movie.

 

  • First 30 minutes : “Whoa! Yes, finally!”
  • 31 – 60 minutes: “Who is he? Who are they? Why are they doing that?”
  • Last 40 minutes: “…”

 

I was speechless.

 

I left the theater with mixed feelings. Not because it was bad, but because, it was just something different from my expectations. I wasn’t going to call it disappointing, but more of something that I never pictured before. You know, I was a basic movie-goer, and with my list of all Nolan’s feature films that I’d watched, I was expecting something like The Dark Knight (2008), Inception (2010), or Interstellar (2014). It was like expecting more powerful horse to ride, but someone gave you a car instead. At first you don’t understand, or even disappointed, but you know it brings something better in the end.

 

By the time my feet reached the exit door, I promised to myself that I had to re-watch that movie as soon as its home video version was released, and had to write something about it. *And here I am, got the movie earlier last month, but a month late to write it down.

 

The Script and The Choice of Lesser Dialogues

I’ve been collecting all of Christopher Nolan’s movie scripts, all 10 of his released feature films, from the indie debut Following (1998) to Dunkirk (2017). And at a first glance, it’s easy to notice that the Dunkirk script was by far the shortest Nolan’s work. It’s even 14 pages shorter than the Following’s, even though Dunkirk has 36 minutes longer in length.

 

There’s an unwritten law in script writing technique stating that one page of the script equals to one minute of the film. Yes, it doesn’t apply to every case, but that basic rule makes movie scenes detailed enough to follow and enjoy, not too long to make us bored, nor too short to make audience confused. *You can learn more about this here. So, in Dunkirk’s case it makes me questioned that 82 pages script turned into 106 minutes film, there must be a catch.

 

 

And the answer was the director’s choice to make that movie lesser in dialogues, indeed. He chose to create a film to have little dialogues, and instead of trying to engage audience with spoken narratives, it tried to engage audiences with visual spectacles. That, is what made some audience confused throughout the movie. They used to look at screen and follow the actors talk, telling what they came from, how did they end up there, how’s their family, etc. But in Dunkirk, we were brought the actions seconds after the movie started, and that’s relatively what happened until the movie ended. We weren’t given a chance to learn the characters’ family and their motives, and how they ended up in situations like that. All we watched in Dunkirk was what happened in the history of Evacuation of Dunkirk.

 

It’s never about the characters’ personal stories.
It’s all about the events.

 

In the end, it sacrificed some portion of fans that wasn’t patient enough to see the whole movie without knowing who they’re watching. I found some people walked out of my theater in the middle of the movie. That made sense, even I admit that I was also confused in some parts of the movies, and I couldn’t bare to see the story going on without knowing what or who I was watching. It’s like we weren’t engaged enough to the characters because we didn’t know them, because they never told us, because we couldn’t empathize to their struggles.

 

But what held me to sit down still to the last second of the movie was my trust in Nolan, that he still had that power to bring us a better and the best movie he could create. *At least that’s what a fan would do.

 

At last, the box office and critics paid off. It was successful in grossing while also getting praised by reviews. Some considered that it was one of the best war movie ever made, pointing out that lesser dialogues and focusing more on the event was a precisely how a war should be reenacted, not too much chit chat and pretending there were no horrors going on.

 

I can go on talking more about this movie: about Hans Zimmer’s music, which is great as always; about the choice of Actors which a little bit off of Nolan’s habit, leaving Hollywood-centric tradition, and Harry Styles joining the cast that made girls went crazy; also about the props used from real World War II vehicles. But you can dig it yourself, and I’m more interested about the script and the artistic choices.

 

The Triptych

In one of Nolan’s interview before Dunkirk was released, he teased about the film’s unique structure, which he called like a triptych, “a work of art (usually a panel painting) that is divided into three sections, or three carved panels that are hinged together and can be folded shut or displayed open” (Wikipedia). He quoted:

 

“The film is told from three points of view. The air (planes), the land (on the beach) and the sea (the evacuation by the navy). For the soldiers embarked in the conflict, the events took place on different temporalities. On land, some stayed one week stuck on the beach. On the water, the events lasted a maximum day; And if you were flying to Dunkirk, the British spitfires would carry an hour of fuel. To mingle these different versions of history, one had to mix the temporal strata. Hence the complicated structure; Even if the story, once again, is very simple.”

 

I’m not going to be an all-knowing explainer here, but this specific narrative style he chose here fascinated me. The story was pretty much basic events on what’s happening in different locations in Dunkirk, and the common technique to tell that stories would be generic cut scenes from one place to another, from one character-arc to another. Instead, Nolan saw that chance to depict the intermingled events of Evacuation of Dunkirk and showed the audience how the war happened in a real context: people working on different places, from different backgrounds, with different context, aiming towards one similar hope for victory.

 

They who patiently watched the movie to the end would understand that the story was a block set of inter-related narratives. It can be seen as a whole, one unit of an artistic movie, or as three separated arts:

Source: dunkirkmovie.com

 

The History: “We Shall Never Surrender”

“This is an essential moment in the history of the Second World War. If this evacuation had not been a success, Great Britain would have been obliged to capitulate. And the whole world would have been lost, or would have known a different fate: the Germans would undoubtedly have conquered Europe, the US would not have returned to war. It is a true point of rupture in war and in history of the world. A decisive moment. And the success of the evacuation allowed Churchill to impose the idea of a moral victory, which allowed him to galvanize his troops like civilians and to impose a spirit of resistance while the logic of this sequence should have been that of surrender. Militarily it is a defeat; On the human plane, it is a colossal victory,” -Christopher Nolan.

 

When I studied part of history of WW2 surrounding the Evacuation of Dunkirk, I ended up more interested in Winston Churchill’s speech, called “We Shall Fight on the Beaches”. At that time Churchill was the British Prime Minister, elected just eight months after the outbreak of World War II. The speech was noted as one of three major speeches addressed around the period of the Battle of France, along with “Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat”, and “This Was Their Finest Hour”.

 

What’s remarkable about the speech, along with two others, is that it was powerful enough to lift the morale of the nations, both UK and in France, to defend their country against the Nazis. It was a very difficult time when the victory seemed far, the Nazis had cornered the allies, and there was no help to seek out. But the speech alone, if not others, had successfully carried the dramatical change over the five-week period of the Battle of France, assuring both civilians and soldiers to think and act that led them to the success of Evacuation of Dunkirk -which was also the turning point of Nazis defeat, and finally led the allies to win the World War II.

 

And Nolan had carefully quoted the speech into his work in Dunkirk, beautifully crafted so that we can enjoy the movie while also reliving the spirit of fight for victory in it:

 

“We shall go on to the end.

We shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills;

We shall never surrender.”

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