Learning Means Changing
October 6th, 2022
The reason I find it so hard to change is that I’m too busy being myself.
If you want to learn a specific skill, like using new software, riding a monocycle, or speaking a foreign language, what do you do? You find a teacher, or a course, or start practicing the skill in some way. In the beginning you are clumsy, you make mistakes; you keep practicing, you get better, and you start using that skill.
You start working with that software, get stuck, get frustrated, make mistakes, practice some more, get better results. You’re improving.
You take that monocycle out and try to stay on it for more than one second. You improve your control, you fall, you feel like a failure, you stay on for five seconds, you celebrate. You’re improving.
You try to read in that new language. You dare to say a few words to a native speaker. They raise an eyebrow and answer in English. You get frustrated, you think of giving up, you practice some more, you can understand better when you hear it. You’re improving.
At some point, if you haven’t given up on the way, you master the skill to a level that seems satisfactory and you consider the learning process finished: you have acquired a new skill that you can use from now on. It may still improve as you keep using it, but you’re not in an active learning process any more.
When it’s about a specific, measurable skill, it’s quite straightforward. You know how far you want to go with it, you know what you need it for, you know when it’s good enough and when the learning process is over. You have mastered the software enough to use it; you didn’t become a programmer. You can show off your monocycle skills to your friends; you didn’t become a circus artist. You can go shopping in a foreign country; you didn’t become a linguist.
We make this kind of judgements all the time. We learn skills up to a good-enough level, depending on our needs and goals.
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But… When we feel the urge to improve broader areas of our lives, the learning process is not that clear cut, and the end point is rather vague; it’s not so obvious when we’re done.
“I want to improve my posture/my physical condition”; “I want to improve my relationship with my kids/spouse/colleagues”; “I’d like to manage my time more efficiently”; “I’d like to be less anxious”.
These learning goals look more like life-long projects; they involve complex skill sets, they are multi-faceted, long-term, and do not have a clear end point. Success is not easily measurable. Sometimes it’s not clear if we’re making any progress at all.
All these learning goals have one thing in common: they involve change. Real change.
Of course, all learning brings about some kind of change. When you learn a new skill, your brain changes. The very act of learning is healthy for your brain. It creates new neural pathways. It’s always about more than just a single, clearly defined skill.
But when we are talking about improving broad areas of our existence, we are talking about changing ourselves in a deep way, which is a totally different level of change.
Curiously enough, when you dig a little deeper you find out that many of us are not really willing to change. We want to change something fundamental in our behaviour, or in the way we feel, or how we perceive things or react to things, but we won’t touch our deeply ingrained beliefs.
Don’t fool yourself: if you want to change your way of being in the world in any fundamental sense, you’ll have to change your deeply ingrained beliefs in some way. You want to stop procrastinating? Not get angry so easily? Not slouch? Do more exercise? Be more honest? Have a better relationship with your daughter? Dare to ask for a raise? Be less anxious or less stressed? Your deeply ingrained beliefs are right there, making sure you stay the way you are. They keep you safe, they make sense of the world you live in, and they limit you. In many cases, they were useful when you were five years old, and now they’ve become obstacles. It’s time to update them, and they don’t go away easily.
Given my area of expertise, I’m particularly interested in limiting beliefs regarding movement and action that clearly involves our physical body. Can you think of any such beliefs? They have a lot to do with our self-image. Things like: “I have a balance problem”; “I have a bad back”; “I am clumsy”; “I’m no good in sports”; “I have no abs”; “I’m too old to do that”; “It’s too late to start dancing in my age”...
Are you willing to examine your belief system? How unshakeable are the opinions you defend? How difficult would it be to modify your habits, or try new things? Are you willing to fail and make mistakes? Often we don’t even think of those things as beliefs; we consider them objective descriptions of reality. They’re not.
When seeking improvement we must learn new things; in order to learn we must be able, and willing, to change. A real growth process always involves a choice: I can stay comfortably with what I already know, or I can opt for uncertainty, trial and error, questioning my habitual ways, failing, changing…
Improvement = Learning
Learning = Change
I want to improve. Am I willing to change?
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