How to Beat Your Biggest Learning Obstacle

All this tension around mistakes will lead you to either avoid them entirely (and never learn), or try to move the heavens to avoid looking bad when you do make a mistake, instead of accepting it and learning from it.

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Winning and Losing are Just Feedback

Even knowing all that, winning still feels euphoric, and losing makes you want to tear out your hair. We take both personally. The challenge is learning to see them as performance feedback, not character feedback.

And I'm not just talking about sports or athletics. Getting a question wrong or being stumped by a science, programming, or logistical problem is a kind of "losing" if you view it that way.

Keeping this detachment from whether we win or lose is especially difficult when other people are making character judgements about us based on our performance: "He's just not smart enough. She doesn't care. He's too weak. She doesn't have leadership ability. He's a follower, not a leader. She can't handle stress. He can't stand up to others."

When this happens, and you actually start to buy-in, remember these two things:

  1. You can choose to believe that an ability is learnable or innate. Studies have shown this is true, and have even shown that the belief can be changed after it is set.
  2. Choosing to believe that you can improve will allow you to actually improve. This effect goes very deep, to the point that believing intelligence can be changed will lead people to effectively get smarter. You are reading this, so you probably already believe this to some extent.

The ego doesn't care about getting smarter later. It thinks, "I'm either smart now or I'm not. Whatever I am, that's what I will protect."

Remember, your ego is not the same thing as confidence. The ego is insecure. It's part of our primitive, self-protective brain. It just wants to look good.

Growth requires change, and beingĀ attached to who you are right now, looking for every reason a fundamental change is a bad idea, you're not going to get very far.

Where learning, growth, and leadership are concerned, a big, brittle ego is a massive obstacle to any kind of success.

What You Can Do:

Think about a mistake or failure you made recently:

  1. First, spend some time thinking about how you see it now. Do you take it personally? Do you blame outside factors? Do you already own it but see it as feedback?
  2. Second, ask yourself the following questions:
    1. What events occurred? Don't answer this with explanations, excuses, or even praise. Just focus on the actual events that occurred.
    2. What actions did I take that contributed to that outcome? Again, avoid thinking about judgements. Just think about what you actually did.
    3. What do I need to do to take the correct actions next time? Focus on what behaviors, actions, or tools you need. Saying something like, "I need to be more careful," isn't very helpful compared to, "Before throwing the switch, I need to double-check the widget is in the right socket."
  3. The next time a mistake occurs, try to find a time soon afterwards to ask these questions.

And most of all, be forgiving. If you take any sort of pride in your work, you're going to feel bad and take it personally. That's okay. Just don't sit there gnawing on how stupid you were all day.