You Don’t Learn Because You’re A Stubborn Ass

When was the last time that you learned something new? I’m not talking about a training you attended. I want to know when you actually learned something. It’s been a while, hasn’t it. I’m going to guess that it was grade school. Let me start off by saying that this is 100% your fault, and it’s been building for most of your life.

We turn into teenagers, and magically knew everything. As you moved into adulthood (some later than others) you found that you were too embarrassed to admit you didn’t know what you were doing. Oh sure, you sign up for that course, but you think you understand it 5 minutes into the first session. That, or the instructor is bleeding out of your ears awful. We’ve all been there. Usually on a webinar where you hear something like “and it’s super important put to content into your marketing funnel.” I still get mad about signing up for that one.

Training is usually written by systems thinkers who define a process and want you to follow it. But systems thinking isn’t useful for normal humans. Systems thinking is what causes us to give our taxes to CPA’s instead of following the helpful pdf’s online that the IRS provides. If you’re a systems thinker — congratulations. There’s a job in accounting for you. For the rest of us, there’s some deep thinking that needs to go into how we learn.

So, the beginning is this. Stop what you’re doing and say this out loud. “You don’t know what you don’t know.” It’s simple, but it’s important. To learn something new requires you to not have experience doing it. You want to learn something new, don’t you? We like new. New is great. Well, new-ish. Video gamers love Call of Duty, and they like every new expansion pack and title. I hate it. I grew up playing simpler games, and Call of Duty is too hard. I never even mastered GoldenEye — how the heck can I master the new games? It turns out we actually don’t like new. We like the appearance of new. Do you know how games are built? They’re built on engines. Engines that have different graphics, which means you can play the same game, but have it look different and you’re happy. Young kids aren’t better at games. They just learned on different controllers.

Maybe you don’t play games. So let’s do this. Go to the settings on your computer and reverse the flow of your trackpad. Now read this column. Sucks, doesn’t it. If you liked new — this would be exciting. But what you really like is the two finger tap that opens a new tab (seriously, set that up), but only as long as the scrolling works the way it always has.

And to think, a moment ago you were nodding your head that you like things that are new. Try this. My wife does this. She moves silverware around. What I mean is that she takes the silverware in a drawer, and randomly decides that it needs to be in a completely different drawer. So now I go to cook a late night chicken pot pie, and I can’t find a fork. Let me tell you — it physically hurts. My blood pressure rises. I get turned around, and frustrated and I want to yell. You’d do it too if I came into your house and moved the silverware. If I put contact paper down — you wouldn’t care. If I sorted your knives and small spoons, you’d be fine. But if I moved the entire drawer, you’d be screaming about why people need to stop messing with your life.

Why? Please tell me you at least asked why. It’s because your brain is efficient. Through a process called chunking, your brain creates subroutines that make you more efficient. These include most of your habits — brushing your teeth, cleaning your hair, which leg goes into your pants first in the morning, how you say hello to friends, the route you take to work, and what you do with an egg after you crack it.

These “chunks” are your body on automatic. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing, freeing up your brain to focus on other matters. It works like this. Your brain has about a million gigabytes of memory storage. Bite me, Intel. It doesn’t feel like that when you can’t find your keys, but you’re an impressive specimen. The problem is your conscious brain only has access to about 10 Mb of processing power. Brains aren’t computers, so don’t argue about the number or the difference in a network and a hard drive, but your ability to focus is so laughably small compared to your capacity to process experience in the unconscious that you’re better off making all of your decisions when asleep (theoretically).

What does this have to do with training? It’s simple. As an adult, you’re a stubborn ass that refuses to admit that you have anything new to learn because it is too much work to shut down your learning subroutines and approach something in a new manner.

Here’s a story. A chip engineer working for a chip processor was stuck on a problem. Hanging out in Utah, he worked on it for two years, and got nowhere. In supreme frustration, he ripped his computer out of it’s station, marched out of the building and down to the great Salt Lake. Like a madman, he feverishly strode out on a dock with the computer, muttering all the while. At the edge of the dock, he lifts the computer over his head, and yells out, “This is impossible! The only way this works if is you do this, this and this (I forget the actual words)!”

The engineer stood there for a little bit, with the computer over his head. Imagine it. It was before cell phones, so no one was calling the police, but there was probably a little old lady feeding the ducks and ducking her head because that guy on the dock was crazy. The man lowered his computer. He looked around, and then headed back inside. In that moment of insane, supreme frustration, he finally stopped fighting his unconscious. He opened himself up to learning something new, and BOOM — he had his answer.

We sometimes mistakenly call this a moment of clarity, or a lightning bolt of genius or inspiration. And before I go farther, I would be remiss not to tell you that this story was not mine, but was told to me by Wayne Brown, an engineer in California who remains to this day the smartest person I’ve ever worked with. So this moment — we all have them. You can watch your kids do this when they struggle. One day they can’t tie their shoes. Then they can. One day they cry when they’re told to say the alphabet. The next you can’t get them to shut up about it. We say this is because the brain of children has more plasticity, but that’s a cop-out. The child also doesn’t have the subroutines we do. They’re not embarrassed to learn yet.

And that’s why you haven’t had any good training since middle school. You probably don’t remember that I originally said grade school, but since you read this far, I’m rewarding you with an upgrade. Does that make you feel good? Great. Here comes the hammer.

You are an impediment to learning something new. Your brain and biochemistry are working tandem to protect your ego from admitting that there is something that you don’t know. The good news is that you don’t have to fly out to Utah for your epiphany.

“I don’t know.” Say it out loud. Write it down. Repeat it a hundred times until you finally admit that it’s true. Once your brain accepts that you truly don’t know, you’re open to finally learning something new.

Okay to sum up. Did you learn something new today? Or did you already kind of know it?