Learning to Learn

Date Posted: June 22, 2015
Learning to Learn

Years ago, I was out on a walk with a very accomplished friend who had traveled the world, had received many rewards for her life’s work, and was revered by many. I decided to take advantage of her sage wisdom and brave discussing what felt like a potentially vulnerable subject for me: the agony of my learning process. Until then, I had been extremely hesitant to discuss this with anyone because it caused me feelings of shame. And at that time, I wasn’t big on exposing my vulnerabilities to anyone but my shrink (which only took me about six years to become comfortable).

I started out by asking, “Would you mind if I picked your brain?” She was, of course, completely available for that. I revealed to her that no matter what the pursuit, I felt dread, self-doubt, and anxiety over trying to gain even the smallest level of mastery. I told her I carried mountains of self-criticism poised to cascade forward with every mistake I made during the process of learning. Whether it was music or sports or knitting—no matter how hard I tried to change my pattern of learning, it was Groundhog's Day over and over again.

As she listened intently and with compassionate neutrality, the floodgates opened, and I was suddenly on a roll. I continued, “I’m mind-boggled at the amount of discipline and effort it takes for me to gain even a fraction of competency in the things I pursue. I envy those who learn to master things so effortlessly: they always appear so excited, inspired, and optimistic. But, obviously, they are geniuses, right They have genetic loading on their side, right? How can I get to a place where self-criticalness and self-doubt never exist during my learning process ever again? I want to feel confidant, bold, and full of hearty bravado every step of the way. How can I be more like you?”

She stopped in her tracks and stared at me. Then she started laughing. She laughed so hard I thought she was going to choke. What she said next was a game changer for me. Even though I could see her rolling her eyes at me, she still spoke with kindness and love. With a glint in her eye, she said, “Beverly, your problem is not how hard it is for you to learn to do things well, your problem is humility.”

I was floored. What? Moi? I could not be more humble! Look at how lowly I think I am!

She continued, “For starters, learning something new, and doing it well, takes thousands of hours of practice. The minute you think you should already have arrived and conquered, and are no longer having any self-doubt, your ego has deluded you grandly. The difficulty you face every time you try to learn something has more to with what you are pursuing than it has to do with you. My advice is that either you decide to stop trying to learn what is inherently difficult to learn, or you gain enough humility to give yourself permission to get just a little better with each passing year. Stop approaching your pursuits with so much ego, perfectionism, and unrealistic expectations, and I guarantee you will start enjoying the process. And another thing: stop judging your insides by other people’s outsides!”

It took a while to fully digest the reality sandwich my friend handed me that day. And even though that conversation took place many years ago, it continues to serve me well today. I just wish someone had saved me years of useless heartache and self-rejection. But, as they say, better late than never!

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