Overcoming Self-imposed Obstacles to Learning

Many of us want to learn something but are hampered by our own self-imposed limitations about learning. We put obstacles to learning that exist only in our own heads. We tell ourselves: I am not good at math, or I am not good at learning languages, or I am not good at learning music.

These self-imposed obstacles are more important to overcome than any obstacle inherent in the learning of the thing you want to learn. If you believe you are bad at learning languages, then overcoming that belief will be more important to learning a language than any particular method of learning the language.

The second self-imposed obstacle is lacking the proper motivation. You will always learn something quickly and deeply if you are intensely motivated to learn it. But it has to be the kind of motivation that transforms into discipline. Because it’s easy to become motivated for a day, and much harder to be motivated for the months necessary to become an expert.

The third self-imposed obstacle to learning is the mistaken idea that anything short of absolute mastery of a subject is failure. As many learning experts like Tim Ferriss have pointed out, becoming an expert in something is generally way easier than people realize. What’s more difficult is becoming a master.

But why should mastery be the only metric by which we judge the success of a learning effort? Is not expertise a valuable thing in and of itself?

However, setting out outlandish goals of mastery can itself be a strong motivator. If you tell yourself: I want to be the world’s foremost expert in X, that is very strong motivation indeed. To a certain extent, these goals need to be realistic. It is much harder to be the world’s foremost basketball master if you are only 5 feet tall.

Nevertheless, less “objectively limiting” fields like language learning are prime examples of where the competitive spirit can become a strong motivator. If you tell yourself, I want to be a foremost expert in Icelandic, that is likely to be a stronger driver of behavior than the more lukewarm desire to “little a little Icelandic.”

It is OK to be ambitious! Ambition drives us to focus, and focus is necessary to learn. And it’s OK if that ambition ends of being unrealistic, for being a jack-of-all-trades is nothing to be ashamed up. In fact, being a generalist is an excellent way to succeed in today’s complex world. The most valuable skill is the skill of knowing how to acquire new skills.

Right now I have set myself the goal to learn Spanish. For all my life I have convinced myself that I am bad at learning languages. But I know now this is a self-imposed limitation. To motivate myself, I have two goals: a practical goal (I want to travel to Mexico with my partner) and an ambitious goal (I want to make Spanish such an important part of my life that it helps me make money in some way). I can tell you that the latter goal is far more motivating than the first goal.

I cannot tell you how that will work. Perhaps it is naive. Perhaps it is silly. But nevertheless, it is a strong motivator. And that is driving my learning. And that in itself is valuable.

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