How to Learn Anything New
Change can be scary. Having to learn something entirely new — a computer program at work, the ins and outs of a new job, a difficult subject in school — can rattle us.
Personally, I’ve found most “book” learning to be a cinch. If I just have to read something and remember it, I’m good. More hands-on things, like working on a car? Not so much.
For instance, I had never mowed a lawn until my late 20s. Normally my husband mows, but one spring, he was away for work. Before he left, he showed me how to start the engine, and I mowed a bit while he supervised and gave pointers.
When the grass was long again, I pulled out the lawn mower and got started. I was halfway done when the engine started sputtering and stalled. It was out of gas.
I grabbed the gas can to refill it, but it had a new nozzle that is safer but hard to open. It was like a tiny Fort Knox. Try as I might, I couldn’t open it.
I felt defeated. Most people know how to put gas into a lawn mower, but I was too proud to call somebody and ask, “Can you show me how to do this?” I searched online, but couldn’t find the answer — just YouTube videos of angry guys pulling off their gas caps and throwing them on the ground. (I guess I wasn’t alone in having trouble with the nozzle.)
I went back, and knew that there had to be a way to open it, but it wasn’t obvious. Instead of twisting it, I pulled back the nozzle, and it opened. I filled the tank, and mowed my lawn.
My lawn mower lesson can apply to learning in general. There are many times when we stumble across something we don’t know. Often, we’re afraid to ask how to do something because we feel we should already know.
Our society is always amazed at prodigies: people who can pick something up effortlessly and master it. The reason we’re so astounded is because most of us can’t do that. The standard is to struggle, make mistakes, and spend years practicing before we become proficient at something. Yet, we’re supposed to pretend that doesn’t happen?
This doubt at learning is reflected in our language: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But if you’re open-minded and willing to try, you can learn.
It’s OK to call a friend and say, “When you get a chance, can you show me how to do something?” Most people are delighted to teach you something they’re good at. It would be easy to let them do the task, but ask if you can do it while they guide you.
(Make sure you reward them, too. I thank people for their time by making them a dessert or taking them out to lunch. I’ve yet to call someone, say I need help, and not have someone show up.)
If there’s no one around to show you, there are still a lot of resources available. There is a YouTube video for just about everything, from sewing a button to changing a faucet. A simple Internet search can bring up articles, classes, or books. Learning has never been easier.
And don’t be discouraged because you don’t get something right the first time, or need to go back and ask more questions. Asking questions is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.
Kids naturally ask questions — it’s how they learn about the world. But as we grow up, we learn that we’re supposed to look like we know what we’re doing.
Have you ever asked a question in school and had a teacher snap, “Weren’t you paying attention?” In high school, I’d just be quiet and let it go. But when I was in college, paying quite a bit to learn specialized math, a professor said that to me. I replied, “Yes, but I still don’t understand it. Can you explain it again?” She did, and I finally got the concept.
Don’t beat yourself up over a mistake when you’re learning something new. No one is perfect.
Although it can be difficult, you don’t have to let a lack of experience keep you from seeking out knowledge or trying something new. We all need to start somewhere.
Most of my frustration when I’m learning is that it takes me more time and effort than I thought. But being skilled at anything takes time, so allow yourself time for practice and reflection. Even if we have a raw talent for something — like playing an instrument or competing in a sport — we still need training to master it.
Sometimes the hardest part is admitting, “I don’t know.” But instead of giving up, keep going, and keep searching for answers.