Joseph F. McCaffrey MD, FACS


Be Easy About Learning

In another article, I described the four stages of learning. In that article, I used a child learning to tie their shoelaces as an example of the learning process and the stages of learning.

Since I wrote that, it’s occurred to me that there’s another point to be made using that example. It’s at least as important as the knowledge of the four stages. Realizing this will both speed your progress and increase your joy as you achieve unconscious competence.

Consider again the example of a child learning to tie their shoes. The child is awkward and fumbling and slow and fails many times as they try.

Now consider the adult sitting next to them, coaching them as they try to learn.

Most adults patiently go over the steps one by one. They watch the child practice, pointing out where they can improve and heaping praise on them when they make progress. The child focuses on the task and takes pride in their progress.

How would the child react to harsh criticism? How would they feel if the adult expressed disgust at their clumsiness? Do you think that helps the child progress faster?

That style of coaching doesn’t help. In fact, it slows learning and robs it of joy.

Yet that critical style is exactly the inner talk many of us use on ourselves as we acquire a new skill. We expect instant mastery. When we don’t provide, it we criticize ourselves harshly. That doesn’t help us any more than it helps the child.

Another point to consider: When we teach a child to tie their shoes, do we ever doubt that they’ll learn how? Of course not. We know they’ll learn. It may take one child a little longer and a little more practice than another, but we know all children will learn to tie their shoes.

Think of all the other very complex skills we just assume children will learn, like walking and talking. We know it may take one child longer than another. We expect there will be differences in learning style. But we always assume the final result will be mastery.

Children learn at their own pace and in their own style. My son took a while to start talking. When he did it was in complete sentences.

We support our children as they learn and never doubt their eventual success.

How many hundreds of times does an infant fall as he learns to walk? Do we give him a certain number of tries and if he doesn’t master it by then tell him to give up?

No we don’t – we assume his eventual success and encourage them to continue trying. We encourage him no matter how many times he “fails”.

And when do we offer the child praise? Do we wait until they walk absolutely perfectly to tell them they’re doing well? Or do we praise every small improvement?

The answer’s obvious. Parents enthusiastically encourage their child to take their first tentative, wobbly step. When they do, even if the child immediately falls, the parents go wild with praise and encouragement.

How differently we treat ourselves.

So as you learn any new skill, coach and evaluate yourself in a way that serves you. Use the same degree of patience and appreciation and acceptance with yourself that you would if you were coaching a young person you very much cared for.

After all, praise and appreciation are really the only appropriate responses to someone continually working to learn and grow and acquire new skills. Even if you aren’t perfect yet, appreciate your involvement in the process of learning. Mastery will come all the sooner.

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