The Misery of Autonomy: From a Student’s Perspective

The lecture ends, we take a break, the next one begins… soon enough the day is over with ~10 hours of material (delivered in 3) dumped on us – for us to synthesize and comprehend. We do our “best” to engage in lecture and make these ideas relevant by salvaging as many concepts and ideas our professors painstakingly presented. Without much more guidance, besides a voluntary time management workshop, on how to engage in lecture and make meaningful connections in class, we’re left on our own… which leads to some detrimental outcomes. During lecture we immediately see if we are meeting the expectations of our professors and how we’re fairing with the most advanced & motivated & hard working students in the class. STEM curriculum is really great at making us feel like we do not belong. This is a gut-wrenching reflection in each and every single 1 of my technical lectures every-single-day. Unless we find a significant reason to engage in unpacking what our lectures have to offer, it’s extremely uncommon to spend the hours outside of class doing so, for some limited-dimensional idea of getting a job 2-4 years down the line. This is actually a much more complicated topic which involves motivation theory, academic trauma, belief, inequities, ethics, vision, and much much more, and the deeper I dig, the more I realize how nuanced and consequential that ~40% of college students are dropping out, truly is.

The ability to exercise intellectual labor in cognitively demanding tasks (such as writing an essay, doing math, or coding a program) requires a game plan if you want to really engage in that activity – sure we’ve all winged it before and we can get by in high school as many do, but the realization that winging it in college, especially if you’re in a technical field, ultimately could lead us to feeling like: is education about just mastering some skill or material? Rather could education offer fertile ground to teach us about ethics all while developing valuable skills that our valuable in our society? It could be about learning how to be an educated member of our community or becoming a professional learner, but instead more often than not, my classes provide a lecturer who knows foundational knowledge to these subjects I’m having to learn, that took 100+ years of development from many human minds, and we’re suppose to make sense of it. But where are the professionals that help us understand how learning works and infuse humanity, ethics, justice into their practices? I recognize even my least learning-focused professors, who are overworked & under appreciated, over-enrolled & understaffed (want smaller student to teacher ratios? well your vote matters) address my learning needs more than most of my colleagues in business & tech. However, a problem we are all too familiar with is, how do we get help on learning what is asked of us in our courses? Autonomy is a keystone of living a happy life as Esther Wojcicki writes in her transformative book “How to Raise Successful People” but, autonomy, something many college students have (arguably) too much of, without guidance coaching and mentorship, leads to serious torment.

One way I invite you to making sense of the autonomy you have in your life as a learner is to begin being metacognitive about what it means to learn. So here are some questions I invite you to chew on and perhaps even write responses for!

  1. What do you know about the process of learning something challenging?
  2. How open-minded are you to thinking about learning more thoughtfully than you ever imagined before?
  3. Are you able to imagine being in a class where you thrive by turning boring topics into engaging ones, all while finding your own sense of belonging through scholarship?
  4. How would you feel if no matter how disconnected you felt with your professor or the material you’re being asked to study, you found joy and meaning in the process of learning?

The way I see it is, we have three options. 

A) Continue to learn to achieve grades and goals set from a self-centered – parent centered – professor centered – “I wanna get that ‘A'” centered paradigm.

B) Always be at the mercy of someone else’s expectations and doing as they say simply because – that’s what you have to do – it’s my way or the highway – others are doing it why can’t you? 

C) Begin developing the intellectual courage and honesty to pursue (write down) meaningful goals, all while challenging and leveraging your prior knowledge to accelerate your learning process. Be proactive for your education and life by beginning with an end in mind and putting first things first. 

Which 1 would you choose?

7 years ago, my mom wanted to open a cupcake bakery in Shanghai with me; we both had 0 restaurant experience, but like many immigrant parents dream – the restaurant hustle is a gamble they want to take. We took a 2-week long cupcake class – thousands of dollars down the drain, where “taking” a course I thought I would learn a lot from and use in my life.

However, I thought wrong.

Had I understood what I know about learning now, I would be able to refer back to my notes and learnings from the 2 week long course and make use of that experience in meaningful ways. But instead, the two things that I remember about that class was one: pistachio cupcakes were delicious – two: chemistry matters. My leader, renowned pastry chef, never guided me to understand the why and the how of what we were learning. Rather he gave a little history behind pastries and we began to bake. I am 100% certain he “taught” us more than those two takeaways… looking back on it I’m quite sad I didn’t leverage my autonomy and curiosity to learn more significantly than I could have had.

So why is it that we struggle with autonomy?

Andrew Huberman a neurobiologist at Stanford Medical School states that, to rewire our brains and our ability to concentrate – in times of freedom – requires that we induce a sense of “urgency” that produces norepinephrine. This hormone, will make us feel agitated, want to get up and go do something less cognitively demanding, as well as less “boring“. Andrew says that we must apply serious focus to fight that urge, ultimately leading to the release of acetylcholine, the neurotransmitter that in combination with the norepinephrine can induce brain growth.

Before acetylcholine can release, AKA when we’re in the uncomfortably boring stages of our learning process, Jeff Anderson from The Learning Code advises himself, by extension all of us:

“How might we reframe our boredom so that we get excited about what we are doing?”

  1. How can we make the “boring” stuff in our classes fun? 
  2. Why do we truly think this class is boring? 
  3. Is it boring or is it because we’re cognitively overloaded & distracted?
  4. What about this material I’m studying is interesting? 
  5. What would this education help me do in the long run?
  6. How do I induce Brain Growth & Why should I bother doing so in this class?
  7. How do I become more cognitively fit?

Moral of this story: making pistachio cupcakes helped me induce brain growth and release acetylcholine. Just kidding, but seriously.

I do not want you to pay and sit through classes, get information dumped onto you, be assigned to do stuff without reflecting on what ‘why’ and ‘how’, and get no long term value out of that experience besides a grade on your transcript. Where ultimately that grade could end up murdering your faith in your learning abilities for that subject. Even really unmotivated students – like me in cupcake boot camp – spend a TON of time being ineffective. Think about how you are spending your discretionary time and autonomy. Let your behaviors drive your attitude, behaviors, and knowledge: in turning often boring difficult to unpack & comprehend content, into meaningful tasks and projects that will provide you genuine value and cognitive anti-fragility down the road.

I failed so many STEM courses I can’t even keep count, so leverage my failures, so that you can learn more effectively THEN efficiently. Let’s rewrite our notes, go to office hours, slow down lecture, make some friends, take a honest look at our schedules, delete that app off our phone, and carry on.

Question your Autonomy & Discretionary Time!

Position ourselves to allow our classes to train our Cognitive Fitness!

You are the future that will lead the communities of today!

We Bet on You!


3 thoughts on “The Misery of Autonomy: From a Student’s Perspective

  1. I think it’s so powerful when you can share your stories Henry — a those little touches of “pistachio cupcake” humor make for delicious reading on a serious subject!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Scott! you played and continue to play (hehe) an essential role in helping me find my voice… Excited for all that’s to come on this journey of being an educator! Fortunately due to your wonderful influence, I do not have to go from 0 -> 1, since you did so much heavy lifting! I just gotta go from 1 -> 1.1! I read your segment in the Creative Release Magazine Issue 4 two times today! You’re such an awesome writer… I even featured a segment of your writing in my recent post! Excited to catchup soon. Happy Birthday Scott, thank you for being so wonderful and generous!


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