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When it comes to learning, your very way of thinking may be undermining you. Fundamental to learning is thinking and if you have some kinds of thinking styles that prevent you from thinking effectively, then those ways or styles of thinking will diminish your learning. Interested?

If the answer is yes, then we are talking about your meta-programs and cognitive filters (which include cognitive distortions and cognitive biases). And these meta-programs can actually prevent you from learning. If you use any of these programs which are meta to your thinking (hence meta-programs) when you first encounter something new that you want to learn—they will filter out the new learnings and distinctions so that you do not learn. You do not get it, you do not understand it. Consequently, you will probably experience confusion, disagreement, and disorientation. You may look around you and see others getting it, learning, being able to then develop the new skills that the learnings lead to, but you cannot. I hope you are getting really interested now!

I have been speaking about this to audiences in the past year or two, usually at the beginning as we get started. Sometimes I wait until the second day after some people have begun to experience the difference between themselves and others and feeling frustrated, “They are getting it, I’m not. Why?” Here are perhaps the most impactful meta-programs, as cognitive filters, that can undermine your ability to learn.


Mismatching for difference.

If your frame of mind is to look for what’s different, then when you hear brand new information, you will not primarily be seeking to match your understanding to what is being presented. Instead, looking for differences, you will be mis-matching what the speaker is saying and you will looking to see how it is not right or accurate. You will be saying inside your mind, “Yes, but…” Yet in doing so, you will not be learning something new, you will be trying to force what you are hearing to fit with what you already know. In terms of learning, this is a terrible strategy. Want to reverse this? Then set a frame of mind that you first will seek to fully and thoroughly understand what’s being presented and that you will sort for differences later.


Options as alternative ways to do something.

If your frame of mind is that you are forever looking for options and for alternatives, then when you hear new information and especially a procedure for how to understand something or do something, then you will not follow the procedure. No, you will try to creatively figure out another way to do it. Doing that, of course, will prevent you from learning the correct way to do it from the start. Now you will miss out on learning how to play up and down the notes on a musical instrument and trying to jump forward to playing music. Yet without having incorporated the foundational procedure, you lack the fundamentals for building more advanced skills. Want to reverse this mind-set? Then set a frame of mind that procedures provide the foundation for more advanced understandings and skills.


Discounting small steps.

In the mental state of discounting, when you notice that something is working or of value, you have a tendency to frame it in such a way that you end up saying, “It doesn’t count.” It does not count because it is too small, too little, too late, too easy, too simple, because anyone could do it, etc. Yes, it may be just a “baby step” forward, but if you discount it, you miss its significance and value. When you use this frame of mind when you are trying to learn something new, you trash the small bits and pieces of the new, bits that could possibly come together later to create a life-changing concept. In the context of learning, you can discount by saying, “Oh, I know that.” “That’s the same as …” “Everybody knows that.” You may discount by setting your ears on high alert for big discoveries and insights, then everything smaller than that is automatically discounted as insignificant. Want to reverse this cognitive filter? Set up a frame of mind so that you look for small pieces and variables. Ask yourself, “What could be great about this?” “How could this contribute to an ever larger insight?”


Strong-willed in temperament.

This phrase is a description of a person who “cannot be told.” A strong-willed person must make his own choices and does not take instructions very well. This person has to do it her way or she feels imposed upon, control, and in a prison. As a semantic meta-program the person identifies one’s self with will or choosing, “I am a chooser.” In this way the person semantically loads “choosing” with so much meaning, then he cannot follow another’s instruction without feeling controlled or pressured by that person. In the learning context, the person will not follow instructions. She will sabotage them; he will avoid them in all sorts of creative ways. Yet in not following the instructions the person prevents himself from learning. His emotions and issues of control keep getting in the way of the learning. Want to reverse this cognitive filter? Set a new frame of mind that when learning something new, you are choosing to following the instructions of others.


L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.


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