Jeremy Côté

Understanding Is Hard-Won

When I first started my undergraduate degree in physics, I would get frustrated when I couldn’t understand a concept. This happened when I worked as an undergraduate research assistant with little previous knowledge about the subject. I suddenly had to start learning about more advanced ideas like tensors and general relativity, which were topics I hadn’t ever studied before. At the same time, I had to learn this largely on my own, since there weren’t classes for this during the summer. The result was that my first summer was a bit rough, to say the least.

Most of the time, I felt like I was grasping a few ideas here and there, but without the stable feeling that comes from a teacher weaving the topics into a cohesive whole. I had a bit of an understanding of various topics, but nothing was strong. This made it seem like I would never fully understand the ideas. I would find myself thinking I understood a concept, only to be baffled when I was following a different calculation. This reinforced the notion that I wasn’t understanding the concepts well.

Fast-forward a few years, and I feel much better about my understanding of these subjects. It didn’t feel like it in the moment, but I was slowly learning. It’s kind of like when I started writing, running, or drawing. There wasn’t any big moment where I felt like I “made it”. Instead, there was a lot of frustration and new obstacles to navigate, culminating with the slow growth that isn’t noticeable in the moment. However, when I look back at where I started a few years ago, I can’t deny that I’ve learned a bunch.

The fun thing about learning is that you realize that there is so much more to find out. It’s like an infinite rabbit hole that you can keep getting more out of. Still, over the years I’ve learned that I can understand new topics. It might be frustrating in the moment, but crucially, the moment passes. I still get confused, but the key is that my confusion is with newer, different ideas.

That’s the mark of progress when learning.

If you’re currently trying to study a topic and you find it impenetrable, remember that this is temporary. The trick is to avoid tackling the confusion head-on. Rather, find a side door that you can enter, and use it as leverage to help you understand the rest. I’ve found this to be a good strategy when learning. Find out where you are comfortable, and try to use that as a building block to understand the rest. You will be surprised by how often this works.

You can understand more complicated ideas, it just takes time.