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How What You Already Know Prevents You From Learning New Things

Proficiency feels good. Being a novice doesn't.

How What You Already Know Prevents You From Learning New Things
[Photo: Everett Colletcion via Shutterstock]

Very few people succeed time and time again by sticking to what they know. In order to thrive in today's business world, we have to let go of the idea that being an adult means being an expert at something. Instead, we need to learn how to become a novice over and over again—to be comfortable with being bad at things on the way to getting good at them.

When Resistance Sets In

In the late 1990s, the British scholar James Atherton demonstrated that even though we say we want to acquire new knowledge, many of us start showing signs of resistance as soon as those new ideas begin poking holes in what we already know. As soon as we feel clumsy and inexpert at something, many of us tend to shut down and resist learning.

"Resistance to learning," Atherton noted in a research paper, "is a phenomenon well-known to most tutors and trainers of adults, but has received remarkably little attention in the literature." So he began conducting rigorous interviews with social-services professionals who were required to take training programs.

This wasn’t some wacky adventure in free-form learning: It was knowledge the participants needed in order to succeed in their careers. And for the most part, Atherton's subjects weren't overtly opposed either to having to attend the training or to the idea that they needed it. However, when Atherton and his colleagues began investigating the participants’ actual responses to the training program, they found something very different. When confronted with new information—especially knowledge that seemed to contradict what they already knew—the trainees simply shut down.

Study participants became confused, unable to concentrate, and even angry when asked to learn things that would cause them to work differently or rethink their practices. A number of participants, according to Atherton, reported "a largely inexplicable inability to listen to or to understand ideas which they themselves felt they should have been able to manage intellectually with no difficulty. They used phrases like ‘I just couldn’t get my head round it.’"

Getting Used To (Temporary) Incompetence

We generally don’t like having to be bad at something initially, even if we'll be better at it later. For many adults, being a novice feels like going backward. We're used to proficiency. We secretly hope we’ve forever left behind that feeling of incompetence that we face when confronted with new knowledge. We want to be grownups who have it all together.

But that's the unavoidable starting point for learning anything at just about any age. Starting from scratch to learn something brand new can be confusing, demoralizing, even downright scary. When it came down to stepping out of their comfort zones and getting started, Atherton’s study participants balked. Many felt too professionally and personally vulnerable to venture into the unknown. Instead, they retreated into the known.

The obvious question that posed for Atherton—and the same one anyone who wants to develop their own skills and knowledge faces—is how to overcome that discomfort and plow ahead anyway.

Not so surprisingly, it starts by accepting that not having everything perfectly mapped out is okay—that trial and error is an inevitable part of breaking new ground. What may be less obvious is how this differs from simply barreling through failures. It isn't necessarily true that, as some entrepreneurs believe, it takes a hundred bad ideas to come up with a good one; it isn't even that failure makes you stronger or more resilient all the time.

More to the point, learning new things simply means being okay with slowness, awkwardness, and a stubborn lack of clarity. It means having to ask embarrassing questions—to be bad first, as a cognitive "down payment" on being better later. And like the learning process itself, that acceptance comes only with practice.

This article is adapted from Be Bad First: Get Good at Things Fast to Stay Ready for the Future (Bibliomotion, 2016) by Erika Andersen, a nationally recognized leadership coach and the founder of Proteus, a consulting, coaching, and training firm focused on leader readiness. It is reprinted with permission.

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