Beginner Mind

Learning is hard

Learning, by definition, involves acquiring a new skill, set of knowledge, or ability that you do not already possess. It is the novelty, the newness, that makes learning learning. When you are doing something that you already know, you are not really learning, so much as practicing (yes, the distinction is not absolute, but bear with me).

The fact that learning involves something new is important to recognize, because again, by definition, learning involves getting better at something or discovering something that you do not already know how to do. This means, again by definition, that you are unskilled at this new thing– unskilled, novice, and not proficient.

No one likes feeling unskilled, novice, or not proficient. It is uncomfortable. We like feeling accomplished, skillful, and good at what we do. This makes learning hard– when we are learning, we’re doing something we are not good at. I’ve met very few people who enjoy doing things they are not good at. As a result of this, we shy away from these things and gravitate towards our competency.

Sometimes though, we have the ability to relatively easily make space for our incompetence– both among ourselves (socially), within our mind (psychologically), and within our heart (emotionally). For example, if I told you I was learning Japanese, but that I could barely count to ten, I’d probably be ok with that, and the person I was talking to would be ok with it too. If I mentioned I was learning how to weld, or I was learning Karate but had just started and so was a novice, there would be a fairly comfortable understanding of this. I could tell myself, I’ve only taken Japanese for 2 weeks, of course, I can’t say much yet. Or I’ve only gone to Karate practice twice, of course, I’m still a white belt.

However, there are other types of learning where it is much more difficult to make the same kind of space, socially, psychologically, and emotionally. This usually happens when there is an expectation of competence, or of already possessing a certain skill, and yet that knowledge or skill set is not present. The more nebulous the skill, and the softer the skill, the more often this expectation is present.

For example, many people, particularly patients who have struggled with substance use disorders, struggle with experiencing the full range of human emotions. A person might relatively easily be able to access anger, frustration, or sadness for example, but is much less able to feel disappointment or embarrassment. The challenge arises because instead of viewing this as a skill that can be learned, its perceived as a character defect (if it is noticed at all). When we try and practice feeling these emotions and find it difficult (incompetent because we don’t have this skill) we assume there is something wrong with us, as opposed to recognizing this is a skill (feeling these emotions) at which we are novices.

Another common example is when a person tries meditating for the first time. Simply sitting, and noticing what thoughts arise, without becoming attached to them, is actually quite difficult. It may seem simple (it is), but it is not easy (it is actually quite hard). It is also a concrete skill that can be learned. However, without setting out to learn it and practice it, there is no reason one would be particularly skilled. There is no reason a person would possess this ability, and consequently, no reason to assume a person would have any competency meditating. However, it feels like something that should be easy, and so we assume that our difficulty with doing it arises from some character defect, or our baseline incompetence, as opposed to the reality, which is that we just don’t know how to do it (any more than I can speak Japanese, do Karate, or weld).

While there are certainly some things we have more or less aptitude for, our inability to do many things usually arises from a lack of training and learning. So, why is this important?

We often don’t do difficult things that would benefit us because we tell ourselves we are inherently bad at them, it is not in our personality or something along those lines. In reality, we are not really bad at things so much as we are novices.

If we can start to view this as something where we are beginners, we can start to think of these as skills to be acquired, rather than problems within us. We can perhaps view ourselves as beginning a journey toward acquiring a difficult but worthwhile skill (such as a new language), rather than an inherent character defect.

This shift also forces us to be clear with ourselves about what, specifically, we need to learn how to do.


-Dr. Justin

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