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All these things block your learning

Jun 18, 2023 Success

Life is complicated. The idea that we learn things in the early stages of our lives and then apply them for the rest of our existence is long dead. We know we have to be lifelong learners; we know we have to be alert to new information and fresh knowledge; we know we have to unlearn and relearn as we go.

We humans are very curious by nature. When we are young, every new thing is a wonder, an adventure, a marvel to be discovered. Some are able to retain this innate curiosity all their lives—and they are the true learners. But most people, sadly, stop learning at some point in their lives. Our natural curiosity is also combined with a latent complacency. 

The paradox is this: the more we know, the more we think we know—and the less we learn from that point onwards. The knowledge itself becomes our cage. The bars spring up around us, and the door is slammed shut.

The first impediment to learning, then, is our own success. Once we believe we have succeeded, we get high on our supply. We believe our own ebullient press and exaggerated PR releases. If this success is combined with a degree of fame, a second door is added to the cage of the mind. If I am so famous and people seem to love my work, surely I have arrived? Surely my way is the way? Surely I don’t need to keep learning stuff—I should now teach it?

The irony is this: the moment you pat yourself on the back for your achievements is the moment your learning could end.

A second formidable barrier to learning? Ideology. Once we sign up to set of principles or worldviews, we find it very difficult to keep an open mind. Doctrine and dogma become huge impediments on the journey of learning. Once we have taken on a creed, all other creeds are false, regardless of new evidence. Some of the most rigid and unyielding minds I have ever encountered are the disciples of this or that ideology. The standpoint of their collective is the only possible one; all other schools of thought are those of charlatans or the misguided.

Wow—is that how narrowly you want to view the world?

A third blockage: tribalism. We are also tribalists, and we are often conditioned to pick a side early in life: these are our people; this is our religion; this is our football team. We then rapidly start viewing the other tribes with disdain. We mock them; we are suspicious of them; we start to fear them; we even end up hating them. Such people are only of interest to their own tribe; and their learning is confined to what their tribe teaches them. They descend deeper and deeper into brainless parochialism, and their mind prisons become more and more impenetrable.

A last one: tradition. Tradition should be the wisdom of the ages, but we often turn it into a set of shackles that keep us tethered to the past. That past is long gone, but never underestimate the tendency of the human being to keep doing things in specific ways, only because that’s how they have always done them. The strongest adherents to tradition are often the least imaginative and the most resistant to change. The learning of the ages is indeed important, and much knowledge is timeless. But had humans stuck to tradition at all costs we would still be oppressing our women and committing shameless atrocities. A true thinker takes only the best drops of tradition and questions and discards what is no longer appropriate.

To overcome these four huge obstacles is absolutely not easy. We have to contain our egos, and we have to have the courage to do different things. To find this strength, we have to understand that each of the four obstacles also have payoffs—that’s why we embrace them so easily. Success gives us comfort; ideologies and tribes give us a sense of belonging and inclusion; tradition gives us continuity. Those payoffs only apply, however, when society is stable and the future is predictable. What worked in the past can work again in those circumstances. But are we living in a time of predictability?

As philosopher Eric Hoffer put it, “In times of change, learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.”

Keeping an open mind is a necessity, at least for some of us. If we all put up walls and then stand behind them, cheering and jeering, nothing of meaning is going to come from those physical enclaves and virtual echo chambers. Our advancement and invigoration as a species come from learning and relearning. We should hold strong to our values, no doubt; we should even study past achievements to learn the lessons of our forebears. Our thoughts, insights and ideas, though? Perhaps a loose rein is best.

(Sunday Nation, 18 June 2023)


I’ll be taking a short break next week, folks; back from 2 July

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