2 Keys to Learning; Plus, a Great Accelerator

By: Martin Grunburg

Let’s say it’s time to learn something new, such as a language or a musical instrument, or how to plant a garden (pick your topic).

What do you think would be the key factors influencing your ability to succeed in learning that new skill or habit?

Now, please think about that for a moment and write down a few thoughts.


OK, time is up.

What did you come up with?

This little exercise highlights a key component to learning (it’s actually contained within the question itself): Curiosity.

As you might expect, curiosity influences the level of our desire. So desire and curiosity, when it comes to learning, are essential. Curiosity drives desire, but it’s certainly possible to have sustained desire without curiosity.

If you read those first few paragraphs and didn’t respond or even think about it too much, chances are you didn’t care and therefore the first key was absent.

Having said that, if you’re still reading, chances are good you are curious and you have a desire to know or learn more.

So, the first question when it comes to learning a new skill or trying to develop a new habit is:

Key #1: Is there sufficient desire? Or, are you curious about the subject matter or topic?

What’s interesting is that in Napoleon Hill’s classic bestseller, Think and Grow Rich, he labels this, “a burning desire” and it’s the foremost principle in his success philosophy.

This may seem obvious, but I can assure you the large majority of people who struggle to learn any new skill or develop any new habit struggle NOT because they don’t know how, but because they lack sufficient desire or curiosity. DESPITE that, they will say the contrary!

By the way, here is how Napoleon Hill defined “a burning desire”:

“A burning desire is one you take to bed with you at night… you hand it over to your subconscious, you get up with it first thing in the morning, you eat with it and you sleep with it.”

The second essential key or core principle as it relates to learning and/or habit development is (and you’re going to like this one) frustration and/or pain. ; )

Now, I know this sounds a bit counterintuitive, but let me explain: In psychology they call this principle the “Law of effect.” That is, do your efforts produce the effect you desire? Is there a substantial reward for the effort that will make you want to perform the behavior again?

For an illustration of this, watch the video below. Yes! It’s a cat video… but don’t skip ahead!

Essentially, the “Law of Effect” says, do you feel good or bad about the outcome (effect you’ve produced), and what is the likelihood, based upon that outcome, that you are willing to give it another try?

So what does the “Law of Effect” have to do with pain and frustration?

Actually, it has a great deal to do with it. Think about the pain or frustration you experience when you try to learn a new skill, such as riding a bicycle for the first time. Was the “Law of Effect” in place? You bet. You likely weren’t rewarded with a great outcome immediately, though; rather, you were subjected to a series of painful and frustrating events.

However (this is where the “Law” is slightly off), this “Law” states that you will continue a behavior only if you have a favorable or rewarding outcome; otherwise you aren’t likely to take action again. But for humans, it’s not necessarily about a “true” or “real” immediate reward. The reward could be a future gain, or perhaps an immediate perceived reward! This sort of mindset (a keyword) would help to build our tolerance to one painful or frustrating experience after another. In fact, this is what would help us to become resilient!

Such resilience leads one to possess the “GRIT” characteristic. (click link for more)

As an aside, this “Law of Effect” greatly highlights the importance of having a quality coach or mentor — a person who highlights the “reward” even when it isn’t there. In fact, a great coach continually focuses on the positive and reinforces the “Law of Effect” by manufacturing a rewarding experience even when, by all apparent senses, there is none.

So, great coaches/teachers will often tell their students they are doing great even when they are not. Not because they are lying, but because they see potential lying in wait. And that is the feedback that provides the student with the encouragement to keep trying — to improve. Such “rewards” can’t be seen but, more importantly, they can be felt! (See Operant conditioning).

Key #2: Are you experiencing pain and/or frustration?

If you are frustrated as you try to learn to play the piano or guitar, terrific! You can be sure you are learning.

If you are frustrated learning how to surf, outstanding! You are learning.

The idea of effortless learning is a bit of a myth. It may sell a lot of books and programs, but it isn’t entirely real.

And this leads us to the great accelerator when it comes to learning:

Being totally open and free of judgement!

Being open to failure, pain, frustration, and even embarrassment. Learning accelerates in the absence of judgement.

We tend to notice how much faster a child will learn how to use a computer, for instance, than an adult. Is that child smarter? Not likely. What they do have is an openness to learning without judgement.

Meanwhile, the Ph.D. is likely to judge the material, the message, the instructor, the process and / or the procedure all relative to the lesson at hand.

An adult learning the computer begins to make comparisons and associations relative to prior experiences. Why, for example, is this here or that there? Capabilities and features are immediately questioned. Who put that there? This should not work like that!

My father has an MBA from Harvard, but he’s no computer programmer. However, he loves to question the “idiots” who’ve designed the software a particular way. “Why would anyone with half a brain put that there?” He’ll say.

Meanwhile, my four year old would be off and running! Seemingly effortless learning as she flies through the operating system.

Putting it all together…

If you struggle to develop a new habit, achieve a goal or learn something new, ask yourself the following:

“Do I really, REALLY want this new skill or habit as part of my life?”

“Am I willing to go through consistent pain and frustration? Do I have a tolerance for pain induced by learning?”

Finally, “Am I truly open to the process, can I begin this with a new set of eyes, a fresh perspective be open and without judgement? Can I have a beginner’s mind?

In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few” ~Shunryu Suzuki

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