What Happens When You Learn New Stuff?

Learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change. And the most pressing task is to teach people how to learn.

Peter Drucker

(Reading Time: 4 minutes)

Work offers lots of opportunities to learn, right? We’re exposed to new tasks, new initiatives, or to new people to work with. It seems like a guarantee that learning will happen. Here’s the thing though: “Real new learning is hard work. It is about people thinking, knowing and understanding differently than they did before” (Steven Katz and Lisa Ain Dack). You need to build new schema that, in essence, overwrite your existing schema, expanding your neural pathways and adding flexibility to your thinking. Sometimes, especially when it’s not learning you have sought out, that can be overwhelming.

We’ve all heard the groans that arise when a new platform or software is announced. We see the stress that people feel when told they need to learn a new approach, whether in teaching, in management, or in performance appraisal, even when support for the learning is available. And most of us feel a little spike of anxiety – will we be able to do it?

I’ve found it really helpful to get in the habit of learning new stuff as a regular part of my life. We can find lots of inspiration around us. Lately in the self-improvement and happiness corners of the internet, there’s talk about going back to what you loved to do as a kid. Drawing? Playing an instrument? Collecting something? Swimming? Hiking? Or maybe there is something that you’ve dreamed of picking up.

I’ve always wanted to learn Spanish. I took it in high school, I did some informal lessons while on vacation, I dabbled with speaking it a little with a friend, and I listened to language learning audio lessons. It never stuck, mostly because I didn’t practise. I also lacked a true understanding of the structure of the language and robust vocabulary.

On a recent two week stay in Mexico, I boldly took intensive Spanish lessons. It was a bit intimidating, and a little anxiety producing – but so good! I consolidated knowledge and then was able to practise while there. Now I’m determined to keep it up – enter Duolingo. It’s surprisingly fun and effective with some gamification thrown in and lots of ways to get better and build that vocabulary.

This kind of personal development primes me for learning. This is what happens when I learn new stuff:

  1. I understand how my mind reacts to challenges. When we come up against a difficult concept or idea, or our mind has trouble grasping a different way to think, we can use metacognition to note how we’re reacting and what we’re feeling. Emotions are entwined with intelligence and cognition and strong feelings can shut down learning. When I notice these, I can understand how to keep going.
  2. I feel satisfaction and energy. Success feels great. A burst of energy and well-being can happen in the moment and be sustained over time. We enjoy that feeling of efficacy that comes with using our brain to learn something new.
  3. I’m motivated to keep going. Lots has been written about intrinsic and extrinsic motivation by many, including Lisa Nichols, Daniel Pink and Dr. Gabor Maté. Knowing what motivates you is always helpful. Do you respond to external rewards like praise and recognition, or do you find the satisfaction of doing well and being successful makes you want to do more and learn more?
  4. I learn how to learn. While learning can happen organically, especially in our childhood, more experienced adults need a framework or a method to learn new things. What works for me is spending consistent time where I read, listen and then practise, whatever the learning is. I take risks even if I might make a mistake. I take a look at my mistakes to understand where I went wrong to learn even more. I also need support from other people to check my thinking and test new ideas. Everyone has learning preferences and knowing what they are adds another tool.

What does learning mean for you and your team? How might you identify your learning wants and needs? How might you work on this aspect of improvement in your career and personal life?


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