Think back to a time when you were completely engaged in an activity. Maybe it was reading a comic book, or catching up with an old friend. Whatever it was, what do you remember about the experience? Are “effort” and “persistence” words you would use to describe the activity? Even though something technically got done (a comic book was read, a fruitful discussion ensued), it most likely felt effortless and enjoyable.
After interviewing people about their “peak experiences” —from rock climbers to chess masters to artists to scientists— psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi found that people kept describing a state of intense concentration and absorption in which no mental resources were left over for distraction. In this state of flow, people felt in control of their consciousness, their inner critic disappeared, and time seemed to recede in the background. Importantly, the activity felt effortless.
The great educational philosopher John Dewey was one of the first to emphasize the important linkages among interest, curiosity, and effort. Dewey made the persuasive case that interest-based learning is more beneficial than effort-based learning. He noted that “willing attention” is more effective than “forced effort” because interest drives active learning: “If we can secure interest in a given set of facts or ideas we may be perfectly sure that the pupil will direct his energies toward mastering them.” In contrast, he noted, an education based on forcing children to expend energy unwillingly only results in a “character dull, mechanical, unalert, because the vital juice of spontaneous interest has been squeezed out.”