I hear it all the time. People are constantly telling me that they “just want to feel confident.” Whether they are learning a new skill, whether they are facing a challenge, dealing with a blind-spot, actualizing a vision, suspending old meanings and constructing new ones— the one thing I can very frequently count on is that the person wants to “feel comfortable” when doing this. And always my very first thought is, “Good luck!”
Where this hunger to “feel good” and to “feel confident” comes from could be a variety of sources. It could come from being so used to “the good life,” and things coming easy. It could come from having watched too many Hollywood movies. It could come as a personal decision that the person no longer wants to work, exert effort, or exercise discipline. I suppose with different people it comes from different sources. The problem with it— it does not fit life as we know it on this planet.
This is especially true for learning. When it comes to wanting to learn something new, develop new skills and competencies, actualize the next level of development, deliberately practice a skill for a decade so that you can reach the level of expertise that you desire— comfort and confidence are two of the prices that you will be paying.
If that does not immediately make sense, then I guess I’ll need to write about the nature and the structure of learning and expertise. Learning is that state of mind where you do not know something that you know you need to know in order to progress. And when you do not know something, then you are unsure and uncertain and that means that what you are facing is new, different, unfamiliar, and uncomfortable. It means that you might be struggling to understand, to figure it out, to put it together, to make sense of it. It might mean that you are holding and embracing what you’re sure you will eventually get, but that right now you do not get, that seems confusing. After all, if you knew it, if you felt sure, if you were certain— there would be nothing to learn.
Learning by its very nature involves uncertainty and ambiguity. So if you have to be “comfortable” or worse yet, “confident” in order to learn—then kiss it good-bye. You will not learn very much. You are in the absolutely worse state for learning. You are in a state that contradicts and opposes that experience of learning. How about that!? Isn’t that interesting? So what state do you need to be in for the best learning?
- You need to be in a state of openness and receptivity.
- You need to be in a state of know-nothing, emptiness, curiosity, and wonder.
- You need to be in a state of embracing and welcoming uncertainty and discomfort. That’s why people who demand comfort and security are actually not even open to learning.
- You need to be in a state of mind where you are anticipating receiving and discovering things that you did not know. That’s why know-it-alls need not apply to the doorway of learning.
- You need to be in a state of mind of openness about mistakes and errors because it is through “trial and error” learning that we learn best. Then when you make a mistake, instead of hiding it, feeling ashamed about it, pretending that you did not really make a mistake— you wholeheartedly jump into the fact of the mistakes trying to harvest every learning from it that you can. And you are not satisfied until you understand the mistake and have a higher level learning-about-your learning and know that from now on you will be making new and more interesting mistakes.
What a paradox! The very states that you probably want when you are learning are the very states —both mental states and emotional states— that will undermine your effectiveness as a learner. Strange as it may seem— comfort and confidence are two states that will actually sabotage your learning, prevent you from getting it, and slow down the time it takes for you to learn. Conversely, some of the best learning states, states that will accelerate the time it takes and enhance the quality of your learning is fascination with errors, wondering curiosity about what you are missing, and playfulness with running the mistake over and over to harvest its lessons.
Sometimes when I approach a new area, one that I do not have a lot of experience with, I sense that it’s going to involve “a steep learning curve.” What does that mean? For me it usually means that what I need to do is what I most naturally resist— being a student again, starting with a “beginner’s mind” again, stepping into the know-nothing state, releasing my previous knowledge and experience and entering into it with “the innocent eye” — seeing things as if for the first time.
You and I were born for learning. It’s our primary instinct. And for most people, they were in their best learning states when they were infants and young children—passionate learners. They were ready to explore, to curiously ask the dumbest of questions, and to try things on to see what would happen. Then of course we kill that accelerated learning state by sending kids to school!
Yet all is not lost. You can recover that childlike “innocent eye” and accelerate your learning today as an adult if you want to. The formula for that has just been revealed. And all you have to do is give up those pretentious “adult” states of confidence, know-it-all, comfort states and behind asking the best dumb questions. So, how much do you want to learn and meta-learn?
L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.