Beyond Functionality: Reigniting the Joy of Learning

As I observe my toddler stacking blocks, he starts giggling as the tower he’s building falls. He points to a block and says “azul” and is delighted that he remembers the word for blue in Spanish. Everything is new for him, and he takes it all in with so much joy. At this point, I can’t help but reflect on how learning is inherent to our humanity.

The joy of learning is there from the beginning, but many of us lose it.

Already in the womb, we are learning. In the early days of life, we absorb the world around us, with such hunger for experience. As we develop and interact with others, our ability to learn by observation and imitation becomes our superpower. According to historian Rutger Bregman, social learning made the difference for our species to survive when others – like the Neanderthals who were stronger and smarter – went extinct1. There is an evolutionary advantage to learning new skills and sharing our knowledge.

So, we should not be surprised that learning brings joy. Just like we experience pleasure from eating a delicious meal, we gain happiness from behaviors that enhance our chance to pass on our genes. The joy of learning is innate.

Sadly, as we get older and formal education takes center stage, many of us lose sight of the joy that learning brings. Learning becomes a duty, a chore that must be accomplished. We ask: will this be on the test?

Even if we are fortunate enough to access higher education, we focus on the functional outcomes of our learning. We ask, will this be useful to get a job?

The true transformative power of learning fades into the background. Joy exits the stage.

From unconscious to intentional learning

As young children, learning is almost everything we do. We don’t focus on “failures”. We play, try new things and practice new skills, until we hit breakthroughs.

As we mature (and lose the intrinsic motivation and joy of learning), we focus on applying our existing knowledge. We settle into a routine, rarely going beyond the surface or following our curiosity down an uncertain path. Some of us seek new productivity hacks, read a new book or attend a course when our careers become stale.

Meanwhile, the imperative to learn does not stop as we settle into adulthood. As children, it may be clear that learning is a necessity to thrive, but as adults the stakes don’t appear so high. This may have been partly true throughout most of history when change did not happen so fast.

Yet, in today’s rapidly changing world, people of all ages need to stay engaged, curious and open to learn and even reinvent themselves. Intentionality becomes increasingly important in learning through adulthood.

The importance of fostering a learning culture in organizations

Organizations follow a similar pattern as people. Start-ups are born out of learning, such as an observed customer need or a market insight. Like toddlers, young companies readily absorb knowledge, refining their business models and strategies.

But as organizations grow, the focus shifts to execution rather than generating new learnings. They settle into a comfortable rhythm, seeking productivity hacks or engaging consultants when the company’s growth stagnates.

Yet, start-ups are not the only ones who need to focus on learning. As the world changes, mature organizations also need to develop and transform. 

Since organizational transformation hinges on organizational learning, learning becomes essential for business success. For mature organizations, the intentionality to foster a learning culture becomes ever more critical.

From task-focused employees, to engaged learners

In the corporate world, we often frame upskilling in the context of serving business needs. If we are people-centric, we also focus on supporting employees’ development to succeed in their current roles or prepare for their next one. And yes, as noted before, learning is essential for both our individual and organizational success.

But is this enough to truly unlock the full potential of learning? I don’t believe so.

Concentrating only on the practical side of learning is what disengaged us in the first place. Having rigid curriculums for employees, with extensive compulsory courses and fixed formats does not lead to intrinsic motivation and excitement.

We end up seeing learning as something to cross off our to-do list. Dry, transactional, soulless.

Focusing only on the functional benefits of learning would be like a chef that only prepares food to provide nutrition. The best chefs attract us by making dining an unforgettable, even transcendental, experience.

Let us position learning as a spark that rekindles joy and delight. Let us create mind-blowing learning meals. And let people follow their sense of taste, explore new cuisines, and even build their own dishes.

To truly engage our people and unlock the full potential of learning, we must dare to go beyond function. We need to remember what we felt as young children and reignite the joy that learning brings. Only then can we create a future where learning is a deeply enriching and transformative experience for all – at every stage of development.


1. Bregman, Rutger, et al. Human Kind: A Hopeful History. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2021.

Written for OEB Global 2023 by Paula Amiama

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