Why Learning is Hard, and How to Make it Easier
Young businesses are the same way. They are willing to make more mistakes than older businesses (or should be), and they use those mistakes to fuel growth rather than just trying to sweep them under the rug.
Learning is Practice
We live in a society that thrives on selling chunks of knowledge. The first thing we look for in a new employee is their degree, a certification that they have "Learned" their subject. We all know that doesn't make them an expert, but certifications, credentials, degrees, workshops, etc. all give the sense that you can learn in a tidy, contained way, like downloading a program.
The reality is that learning takes time (unless you're in The Matrix).
I don't want to give the impression that books and classes aren't worthwhile--they are. But there are two things that learning requires that make it difficult, because we don't like to do them:
The Need for Mistakes
The more mistakes you make, the faster you'll learn (Mostly. If your mistakes are too costly, they can dissuade learning, or even stall it through injury or financial expense).
This is a concept explained in Daniel Coyle's book, The Talent Code, which explores how people become good at what they do. His basic premise is that highly talented people use what he calls deep practice to improve themselves. You may have heard a similar concept called deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is practicing what you're NOT good at, always working at the edge of your abilities, where you make mistakes a lot.
Most of us know that mistakes are necessary for learning, but how many of us actually allow ourselves to make mistakes regularly? More often, we've internalized the idea that making mistakes is bad.
Usually, we do everything we can to insulate ourselves from mistakes.
- A business avoids exploring new products or markets.
- A student only takes classes in her major at her level.
- A martial artist rarely or never spars, simply practicing techniques.
- A musician spends most of her time rehearsing songs she already knows well.
- They are all playing it safe.
Think about playing an instrument. Deliberate practice is learning a new song, stumbling over wrong notes, going back over and over and over to perfect a phrase. It's hard and frustrating, so it can be dangerously tempting to "practice" by rehearsing stuff you already know well, never making new mistakes. Sure it sounds better, until it just sounds dull.
There is a difference between practicing and rehearsing. One is essential to learning. The other is simply review.
Mistakes are the path to learning. Don't insulate yourself from them. Instead, seek out situations where you will be tested and have the opportunity to make mistakes safely.
Adopt a curious mindset: what will happen if I do this? Be willing to take risks and view your mistakes as feedback, instead of punishment.
When you do mess up, view it as a chance to learn something new so you can come back next time and see if you've improved.
Growth Hurts (so Good)
Growth is supremely uncomfortable in all but the rarest circumstances. In fact, growth is triggered by discomfort, so without putting yourself in a situation that challenges who you are, your assumptions, and your level of skill, you won't grow.
Which means you won't get better.
Learning is essentially structured growth, which makes it more predictable, not more comfortable.
Sure, you'll expand your mind reading a book or watching an online workshop, but if you already had the character and attitudes of someone who was successful in what you are learning, you'd probably already be doing it.
Real growth requires a change--however small--in the way you relate to the world and yourself. This is more like a transformation. It's the difference between getting nicer tires for your car and installing a new engine that completely alters the driving experience.
So, does growth always have to suck? No.
The best ways to deal with the discomfort of growth is to pace yourself.
You need to give yourself time to learn new things, not just for the mental glue to dry, but also to respect your mind's need for integrity and consistency.
Other techniques to make growth as painless as possible include:
- Planned breaks and downtime, not just within the day (lunch breaks), but over the long term as well (summer break).
- Rewards to incentivize growth. In many cases, the rewards come on their own: once you grow into a new level of business, your revenue increases automatically. But some growth requires you to go out of your way. If you're trying to beat your sugar cravings, growth in the direction of a better relationship with food will naturally have the reward of inner peace, but you might also consider a spa day after a month with no sugar.
So that's why effective learning is so hard: you have to make mistakes and you have to grow.
- Use curious risk-taking as a way to probe mistakes. View them as feedback, not punishment. Think like a child.
- Pace your growth and plan rewards.
Knowing this, can you spot any areas of life where you have shorted out your own learning by avoiding or minimizing opportunities to make mistakes? How do you handle the discomfort of growth?
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