Robert Hsu
The Casual Observer

Credit: Robert Hsu

Airplane boy. ?My classmates nicknamed me that in third grade when they witnessed my obsession with airplanes. Everything I did in my free time was airplane-related. I even read every single airplane book at my local library, so I had to go to another library to continue satisfying my curiosity. I watched all the informational videos on Boeing’s website and even wrote a letter to the CEO of Boeing at the time, expressing my love for the iconic 747.

Although I’m not as obsessed anymore, there are days when I revisit the old times and spend hours reading up on the latest aerospace industry developments — not even the constant buzzing and beeping of my phone can distract me.

As we go through college, we seem to lose these moments of intense learning fueled by our curiosity, with no career strings attached. But there’s definitely a difference between when we learn on our own time and when we have to learn during class. When we learn for our own sake, we become so invigorated that caffeine’s ability to keep us awake pales in comparison.

However, even when there are opportunities — such as the upcoming winter break — to explore such interests again, I make excuses to myself: “I should just watch TV to make up for all the lost TV time during the semester,” or “I’ve done enough learning to last me through break,” or “I don’t know anyone who could help me start.”

I know that I’m not alone.When M&T junior Dhruv Maheshwari asked his friends, acquaintances and even strangers the following question — “If you had 30 days to learn anything you wanted, what would you learn?” — the responses were as ambitious and creative as you would expect from Penn students.

“I want to dive into health care legislation and understand how it will affect different types of people.”

“I want to learn how to fly a plane.”

“I want to get better at drawing. It’s always been something I wished I was good at.”

But his follow-up question — “We have about 28 days of vacation coming up, are you going to pursue that?” — yielded answers that indicated that people are still afraid of breaking out of the traditional classroom experience.

“I just don’t really know where to start.”

“My parents wouldn’t let me [learn to fly] … also how do I even do that?”

“I’ve tried learning it before, but I always get stuck, or I just get lazy.”

So what can we do to eliminate these excuses?

Dhruv, with the help of Wharton junior Eric Shapiro, has launched The Learner Project, an experiment to inspire curiosity-driven learning over 10 days of winter break. The project brings together people with similar passions, from coding to photography. It also connects them to a guide who has demonstrated experience in the topic and can assist learners, such as Ashwin Muthiah, the beat-boxer for Penn Masala, or Dick Zhang, the student-entrepreneur who co-founded IDENTIFIED Technologies last year.

The Learner Project leaves us at a point where we should feel confident enough to take action — and even feel guilty when we don’t, because the solution is literally at our fingertips. So if I wanted to learn more about making model airplanes, I could join the project and be paired with someone who is a model airplane hobbyist.

This doesn’t just apply to me and my weird airplane obsession. Think about the last time you encountered something that you couldn’t stop reading about — a certain author, a type of dance or even a particular style of cooking. Perhaps you’ve lost sight of this ever since coming to college, but now having no one to teach you or lacking the mental brainpower is no longer an excuse.

Robert Hsu, a College and Wharton junior from Novi, Mich. His email address is Follow him @mrroberthsu. “The Casual Observer” appears every other Friday.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.