Learning is Terrifying

We think of learning as a net positive thing and it undoubtedly is, but it’s also a psychological battlefield.

When you learn new things, you put yourself in situations where you don’t know what you’re doing. You’re often completely clueless, at the outset. People may judge you to be arrogant and overly ambitious for your brazen attempt to better yourself, while all you feel is uncertainty and fear, but you have to hold to the line that you can do this thing, even though you really aren’t sure at all. It’s a horrible mixture of emotions.

Mostly, you learn because you need to. Sometimes you do it just because you want to, but often you have no money or no help, so you can’t delegate the learning to somebody else. It’s all on you. You have to figure it out, because there is no practical alternative. People might be depending on you. Nobody else will do the thing for you, so you have to work out how to do the thing yourself.

You can mentally prepare as much as humanly possible, thinking through the problem thoroughly in your mind, but ultimate you have to leap. Theory only gets you so far. You have to try it out in practice. Learning requires practical activity. Just thinking about it usually isn’t enough. There is a physical dimension to acquiring new knowledge. You have to get your hands dirty.

While you’re learning how to do something you’re patently not currently able to do, trying not to screw up is like constant, unrelenting stress you put on yourself. You don’t want to screw up, but you know your ability to avoid screwing up is quite limited, so your vigilance and caution is heightened. That takes considerable sustained mental energy. 

Sometimes, you just can’t figure out how to accomplish what you set out to do. Other people seem to be able to do this thing with ease, but you can’t. You feel clumsy, clueless and like you’ll never learn how.

Inevitably, though, you screw up, no matter how hard you try not to. Consequently, you might hurt yourself, or waste expensive materials or permanently damage a relationship (learning how to be a parent, or being a good partner, are situations where relationships are on the line). Screwing up leads to feelings of guilt and regret. It’s dispiriting and discouraging.

I’ve broken things beyond repair, while learning. My intention was to repair the thing, but I wound up breaking it. The costs were high. The damage to relationships were the worst. That still hurts.

When people see that you’ve messed up, you feel shame, because people thought your overt confidence and self-assurance, which were necessary for you to make the learning leap at all, was a guarantee you knew what you were doing. The incontrovertible evidence is that you didn’t. Now they’re disappointed in you. Your self-confidence is in shreds.

If you get away with it, completing what you set out to do without completely messing up, you’re still frustrated anyway, because you can see all the flaws and mistakes in what you did. You’re painfully aware of all the wrong turns you took and how near you came to screwing up catastrophically. You feel like an amateur and an imposter, even though you got the thing done.

Insidiously, sometimes you’re blissfully unaware of where your efforts fell short, but everybody else can see it glaringly. They struggle to tell you, without hurting your feelings and confidence. Often, it’s easier for them to lie and reassure you that what you did is perfect, when it wasn’t. You may suspect they’re being less than honest, but you can’t tell for sure and you don’t know why. You’re the only one that missed the meeting.

With repeated screw ups or close shaves, which always accompany learning, you develop an overwhelming and worsening aversion to trying again, but you only get better with repetition, so you have to face the failures and consequences over and over again. If they let you. There are times where you inadvertently screw up so badly, that other people gently guide you away from the scene of the crime. You get no opportunity to make amends. They don’t trust you to get it right next time.

Meanwhile, if the learning goes well, some people who witnessed you getting away with it think you’re gifted and amazing, but you can’t agree with them about that. In your mind, you know how close a call it really was. You also can’t buy into the “gifted” thing at all, because it denigrates the considerable effort you’ve put in to get to this point. You know it was much harder work than that. While you’re blinded by all the deficiencies in your work, you lose sight of what was good.

The cycle never ends. You remember every horrible error, rather than the many small successes. You become hard on yourself, listening to your excoriating, self-critical inner voice. Self-compassion flies out the window. You get fatigued. It’s like endless self-flagellation. You can stop at any time, yet you feel compelled to carry on, to avoid admitting to your failure. Staying in the state of not knowing what you set out to learn is unbearable. It’s a self-inflicted torture, with precious few moments of pride in your accomplishments. You’re painfully aware that self-satisfaction can lead to complacency, after all and that can stop learning in its tracks.

But there is no other way to acquire skills. You have to keep trying and failing.

Disequilibrium happens when you begin to see things in the world that don’t make sense to you. The things you thought you knew–the things that helped you feel stable and clear–are now in question. And, boom! You’re on shifting intellectual sand. This state is hard. It’s terrifying. We crave equilibrium. New information threatens to tear down everything we know. Why did we have to learn this thing? What were we thinking?

There are any number of tools and techniques to help us with our productivity and efficiency – To Do lists, pomodoro techniques, agile processes and so on. However, do we ever acknowledge the time and mental effort required to learn something new, reconstructing our entrenched mental models until the “A-hah!” moment when what didn’t make sense before suddenly slots into your revised framework of understanding, like the last puzzle piece? You’ve connected the dots, synthesised a better mental model and reached equilibrium again (for a while). We tend to ludicrously underestimate the cognitive and emotional load required to innovate, understand and think in new ways.

And yet, you’re not only valuable, as a human being, because of what you can do, have done and are capable of doing. That can’t be the sole basis of your identity. You’re valuable because you exist. The ability to learn new things is both secondary and essential.

If you could feel the pain and struggle of your ancestors, just so you could be here today, suffering and struggling to learn, it would overwhelm you. Every one of your ancestors felt the personal pain of grappling with the new and they had to find a way to survive the experience, or you wouldn’t exist at all. You’re a testament to their tenacity, even though you’ll never personally feel the pain they felt, as a concrete, visceral experience. You’re slightly removed and remote, experiencing your own struggles to learn, but not theirs.

Teaching what you’re learned so far can make you feel a little better about what you went through to learn it. However, the tooth-grindingly, excruciating experience of watching somebody ineptly blunder, while learning to do what you’re already practiced in, can lead you to want to push them aside impatiently and do it for them, or else to yell at them, or speak abusively to them, for their clumsiness. But you mustn’t intervene, because that halts learning in its tracks and breeds helplessness. You have to let other people try and fail.

We subject children to this emotional roller coaster of learning at least five days of most weeks. For life long learners, this inner turmoil is their entire existence. Competency is hard-won. Excellence is a rigorous trial. 

Knowledge isn’t acquired; it’s painstakingly constructed, in your own head. You can take in the information, but it only becomes learning once you have internalised it. It isn’t about the consumption of new information. Learning is the process of using our innate abilities to construct–or create–new understandings of the world. Learning, by its very nature, is the supreme creative act.

They tell you that learning is fun, but be prepared: it can be terrifying. You might experience confusion, self-loathing, despair and trepidation in large doses. The pay off is that you become a better person. That’s the struggle that gives existence its purpose.



About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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1 Response to Learning is Terrifying

  1. Jason says:

    This was perfectly timed and perfectly put.

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