How something I saw every day changed my thinking

So sometimes I like to think I know stuff. Heck, sometimes I even fool myself into thinking that I really understand stuff. I fall into the trap of being under the impression I don’t need a refresher from every now and then. 

Well without spilling every thought I have about learning all at once onto the internets I wanted to focus on the particular topic of reinforcement by sharing one of my personal experiences. 

This won’t be the last time you hear about this but I was fortunate enough in my life to have an incredible work abroad experience in Berlin, Germany. I have many stories from that era of my life but wanted to share this small lesson for today. 

So while I was living there I ended up moving around the city a bit before I finally settled on my final apartment in the Wedding community (or Gesundbrunnen depending who you ask). I was subletting from a wonderful girl who was exploring America for two months who I have unfortunately lost contact with (if you're reading this Frieda give me a shout!).  

Her apartment had plenty of european charm: old wooden floorboards, decked out IKEA bedroom and a balcony getaway. She also had decorated it with many unique objects and posters from her travels (including a cardboard cut out of Michael Jackson, rubber ducks, fairy lights and other American souvenirs).

Her bathroom was no exception and looking past the popstar poster on the back of the door, and The Beatles action figures, there was a simple sheet of paper printed off beside her bathroom mirror of what seemed to be a cross between daily affirmations and things you should know to be a success

Right at the top of this list was the quote:

“Smile so hard that you make others want to smile.” 

I admit as much I respected this girl's professional development goals there was part of me rolled my eyes at that. Like psh, yeah I've read all about how smiling influences your experiences who needs to be reminded of this? This list is so amateur. (But that's me, if you haven't you really should look into it).

Funny thing was I kept that list up there beside the bathroom window and every morning I looked at it while I brushed my teeth and again when I got ready for bed. I would always look at the first item. Turn it over and over in my mind. Ask myself questions like Who made this list? Why is making others smile important? What biological significance does a smile have? Where does the word smile come from? Smile. Smile. Smile. 

Well not only did that first bullet point make me take extra consideration while cleaning my pearly whites, but I had a sudden realization one day when I walked into work some weeks after living at that apartment and received a comment from a colleague.

My supervisor (who is an awesome guy by the way), greeted me in the usual "Morgennnnn" he did every morning but today added, in great English, "Ash, why are you so happy all the time? I mean it's not a bad thing but I've never had a research student who was consistently smiling every day when he came to work." 

And I guess I never noticed it before. I mean I did really enjoy my job even when the Berlin summer heat was making me a bit drowsy or when I was spending too much time trying to find certain symbols on the German keyboard but I guess I didn't think about it that much. Showing my enthusiasm wasn't an effort. It just kind of happened. Even people I couldn't communicate with due to my German pronunciation noticed that I smiled at them every time we crossed paths in the hallways. 

It was then I had the realization that not only "knowing" that smiling can improve the mood of you and your environment but the act of practicing it daily even when I didn't know I was actively doing it may have just had to do with the fact that I was visualizing it twice a day every day. 

Home Improvement is an ongoing process, not a one time thing.

Home Improvement is an ongoing process, not a one time thing.


Now obviously this can just be shrugged off as an anecdote but if you look at effective learning patterns they all involve some form of reinforcement. Now I'm not going to get too much into affirmations because that is an entirely different blog post but the more I have put it into practice the more I do find value in strengthening ideas that you think you know or understand. I learned to not underestimate the importance of reinforcing an idea in helping you stay on track. 

I was humbled in a way of how simple the act of staring at a piece of paper every morning was actually having a noticeable effect on my actions even when I felt like I already knew to do that thing already. I will note that my supervisor further explained that usually around that point his reasearch students usually lose motivation or start becoming less interested in their work. Looking back I feel like reinforcing the idea of smiling combatted this trend he usually saw with others in a similar position. 

A language learning app I've mentioned called Duolingo understands this concept as the experience bars around a lesson will fade with time and only be strengthened back to gold if you reinforce your understanding of that topic. 

It may be because of my engineering background but here I use the word reinforce to mean "strengthen". Just like a building needs repair over time so do the structures of ideas in our mind and it is much easier to reinforce those structures on a regular basis rather then all at once.

The reason I am sharing this story with you is because I am confessing that sometimes I become impatient when I come across a piece of content that I have already seen before on the internet. And inevitably when writing for such a large audience I am aware some of you out there have seen/read/consumed a recommendation I have made. And that is okay too. You always have the choice to decide if you want to go back and read it or not. 

I exercise this choice when I watch movies I enjoy over and over again (see Fight Club) or repeatedly view some of my favourite TED talks (see Why 30 is not the new 20). I also choose not to give Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly another go right now even though I enjoyed playing the PS1 games. My memory is not perfect and I may change my opinion on things over time so it matters to me to check in every once in a while to see if this concept is still relevant to me and if it is something I should still be carrying with me or move aside for something else. 

In Pixar's Inside Out the Forgetters decided if a memory should stay in Long Term Memory or not. 

In Pixar's Inside Out the Forgetters decided if a memory should stay in Long Term Memory or not. 


You can probably notice aspects of reinforcement in your daily life already like when you have to check your Google Maps directions a couple times when you are trying to find an address even though you already "know" what the address is. When applied at a larger scale it can set out mind at ease and assure us going forward. 

So my challenge to myself and to you as well is not to simply dismiss an idea because you've once heard it before but take a moment to understand why you feel that way about that idea. Ask if it is still relevant or if the amount it matters to you has/should change. 

Not every concept explored on Modern Afflatus is new. In fact most of the basic blocks for creating a life of doing what matters have been around for years. By reinforcing ideas we are solidifying the foundations we stand on to take us to the next level.