giving yourself permission to learn

By July 10, 2014 18 Comments

My son is learning to use his hands. Yesterday, we were sitting on the big green rocker, with Goodnight Gorilla before us, and he was working to get his hands to touch the page. He missed and tried again dozens of times, occasionally plopping his palm clumsily — but intentionally — onto the page. There were shouts of effort and whines of exhaustion. There was lots of trial and error. Over the past few months, he’s learned to do dozens of things this way.

I’d forgotten — or maybe never fully realized — how much effort and failure is involved in learning anything. It’s hard to remember that after years of school, when we are typically “taught” something by a teacher — but not necessarily by practicing it–and then, from our first attempt, assessed for how good we are at it. We come to think about whether we are “good at” writing or “good at” math or “good at” sports – rather than seeing ourselves in a process of learning. Wouldn’t it be interesting to get to write 5 practice term papers – with feedback but no grade that “counted” – before we got to write the one that did?

Many of you know that I’ve been very impacted by Dr. Carol Dweck’s work, and her book Mindset. A Stanford University psychology researcher, the big idea of her work is this:

“In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits…In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.”

I personally spent too many of my years living in a fixed mindset and now try to remember that growth, learning, skill development, mastery from practice are possible. And at the same time, I’d qualify that with the caveat that we all have natural aptitudes and abilities that make learning more easy or speedy for us in certain areas.

What’s new for me now is getting to watch a baby learn and see how undeniable it is that:

1. Learning is a process. It takes time.
2. The beginning steps are awkward and clumsy.
3. Learning takes effort, and tires us out.

I want to give myself permission to learn like that – with a novice stage, with awkward, clumsy moves, with lots of failure and with lots of time — whether I’m learning how to download podcasts onto my phone (still working on that one), learning a new dance in dance class, learning how to manage a team well, or learning how to craft a beautiful chapter in a book.

I offer this to you today. Where in your life or work would you benefit from remembering how learning really happens-and that it happens? Can you give yourself greater permission to be a learner?


Join the discussion 18 Comments

  • Adrienne says:

    I need to give myself daily permission to be a learner in parenting. Even after 13 years, I often feel like a beginner. I am constantly learning things that don’t work, making mistakes. I have never done this before, so technically it is all new. This is the first time parenting a teenager, the first time my child is going to high school. The first time my other child is going to Kindergarten, and has very different strengths and needs than my older son. Every stage is new because it is new for that child. I feel often that I should be an expert by now, but truthfully, I will never be. I will always be learning how to do this, even when they are grown. Tough to accept sometimes.

  • Brittany says:

    The timing on this is amazing for me as I needed this today! I just signed up for a workshop that begins on Monday. After years out of my industry, I’m venturing back in. I’ve doubted that my skills and creativity have any value, but today I have a new perspective. And I appreciate receiving this is my inbox today!

  • Georgette says:

    Wow! I so needed this encouragement today that your words provided. Thank you. I am a first-born, perfectionist and I LOVE to learn, but I also hate the messy part of the developing/practice/failure. I am developing my website which will be live soon and I have put off making it live because there were many other things I wished to have included…and I am working on my book proposal and book project…I find it hard to show up to touch the work because it is hard/a process in lieu of just doing it once and have it be beautiful and completed! Layers is what I keep reminding myself of. I will look into getting the book you mentioned. Thomas Edison learned by his failures! Thank you for your reminder! Perfect timing! I love that!

  • Ellen Newman says:

    Tara, this is a really helpful perspective. I’ve so been caught up in learning some new software and how best to apply it before I launch my bog that my inner critic is having a field day. She natters at me for being a perfectionist, when I just want to get past the messy, uncomfortable part of the learning before I commit to posting once a week. I know I can get there, but it’s taking longer than I expected. It’s taking so long, in fact, that I am embarrassed talking about my project any more. I think two clear weeks without other distractions will do it, but that is hard to come by. I see that Georgette is also struggling with a web project. Those online endeavors definitely have longer, steeper learning curves than some of us are used to committing to. Thanks for reminding us and for “giving us permission” to hang in there.

  • Nancy N. says:

    At the age of 48, I recently started a technical training program. My second day in training in my (future) career, I walked out of class feeling overwhelmed and unable to do the work asked of me. I have had four classes now, and even though I have failed a quiz and feel like it will never sink in, I know I need to give myself permission to not be so good just yet, to fumble my way though until it starts to sink in, and just do my best.
    It will sink in, I will get it, and I will get through classes and graduate.
    Your post (and the email which I received) was Perfectly Timed for Me, as so many have since I found You! 🙂
    I can’t thank you enough for your encouragement and your wise words! Keep up the amazing work you do 🙂

  • Carmen says:

    Thanks Tara. I’ve been training in martial arts recently and I appreciate that the teachers let us know we’ll gradually get better and better at even the most basic of moves. Black belts will say, “I didn’t really get good at that move for 2 years.” Instead of being daunting it makes me feel like I have the time and space to be okay wherever I am with a move or technique and have faith that with practice it will steadily make more sense and my skill will evolve. We’re seedlings growing into what will be strong trees. Being a seedling is a beautiful beginning!
    Your post also made me think that this can apply to things even that I’ve been working at for years, a career, etc. Instead of thinking ‘am I a success or failure’ right now at this, I can acknowledge I’m in an ever evolving process of learning and appreciate that I’m growing stronger with every experience.

  • Maggie says:

    Hi…to all..this subject is right where I’m at…self taught in the area of dating relationships..the school of love..learning to get it right, all the details..and then practicing what I’ve learn. Maybe it’s learning these details to pass onto others..maybe it’s just becoming and doing these things..naturally, hoping for the best in a relationship when love shows up? I can only hope that I study’d well…here’s to life, love and the pursuit for happiness.

  • Maggie says:

    But one question…why is it we try so hard in the self locating studies to pursue so hard in self learning when sometimes it may take a lifetime of constant perfection in the pursuing of the goal and then indeed we feel so proud at that moment, when we have met our mark of excellence and we see the growth of our own accomplishments..well it’s back to the grind stone for me in perfecting this love of mine for the good of others. For this is truly a selftaught goal of mine for superior acheivement..can it be done in one lifetime? I tend to think so…..

  • Romy says:

    Thank you for shining a light on a for me new perspective to learning and talent. I can’t tell you, how many times I did not even start something new for fear of being clumsy and making a fool of myself. How sad, that we sometimes have such high, unrealistic expectations on ourselves that we deny ourselves the experience of discovering whether we truly like something or not. Well, I’m done with that. And now, still in the starting phase of building my blog and e-magazine is the perfect time to practice this new perspective and meeting myself with some compassion for the things I’m still figuring out and pride for the many, many things I have already learned and am getting better at. Off to share on Twitter:)

  • Valerie says:

    Thanks, Tara, for one of the most important concepts we will ever learn. It is indeed hard to change your perspective on how and when we should learn and what our true capabilities are. I’ve always been one of those people who think that if you don’t get it right the first time, you won’t be good at it. One reason is that several things did come easy for me the first time. Also, as you say, the manner in which we are tested and graded in school and at work tends to reinforce that self-defeating belief. Why did I not listen to my parents and husband who have been telling me the opposite for so many years? Well, I have no excuse now – so it is time to learn, fall, get up and grow. Thank you, parents and husband and Tara :0)

  • Valerie says:

    Thank you also to my brother, who like my husband and parents didn’t just say it is okay to make mistakes and learn, but showed me by his example.

  • Donna Davis says:

    Hello Tara:

    A few years ago I was in a state of “Been there–done that.” Now I’m in a state of “beginner’s mind.” As far as I can tell, I got from one to the other by grace alone.

    So I would like to add to your wise words, that learning is a very mysterious and serendipitous individual phenomenon. Of course we can handily define and generalize growth processes and progress in a series of steps–and in much fundamental human development such conceptual frameworks have proven useful and helpful. As you suggest, however, these models–vertical, upwardly mobile hierarchies directed to predetermined goals, “objective” evaluations, and time-testing–hold up an unrealistic–in fact, unreal– standard.

    Many times in my life I tried unsuccessfully to learn things–to speak a language conversationally, for example, or to paint with brushes rather than draw, or to figure out a new technology or social platform. A year or two passed while I accidentally or actively discovered and learned other new things. By…well, walking on. Then, faced with the earlier challenges again, I discovered I had also learned many of those skills through my other–seemingly different–cumulative experiences. So indirectly I could only speculate wildly on the connections…the path, the Way.
    Plus, we have often started with an assumption that a secure, stable environment best supports learning. Well, danger, trauma, and panic are hardly propitious; but there is also an ecstasy of anxiety and challenge, an open-ended joy in facing and celebrating the unknown and unpredictable–the motive, I think, for Steve Jobs’ mantra, “Stay crazy, stay hungry.”

    Thank you Tara for walking on with me and all your readers

  • Thank you Tara for sharing your insightful wisdom about this. It is such a great reminder of how we learn. It also takes the pressure off of expecting to do something new, something you’ve just learned, like an expert. I know I’ve been guilty of that and it’s so unnecessary.

  • Maria says:

    I am continually amazed by the perceptions you share – because they express what I feel but hadn’t yet become aware of, or haven’t had the words to articulate. Thank you so much for sharing your gift to help so many of us with our journeys too. I am much kinder to myself these days because of perspectives you have presented, and this is allowing me to grow in gentle warmth rather than struggle with harsh conditions. Bless you, you are an angel on earth 🙂

  • Tara thank you for this post. It is really lovely to read how much joy you are getting from your child. It is important for us to remember that we all need to continue learning and not ‘beat’ ourselves up when we make mistakes. All the very best wishes to you and your family.

  • says:

    hi! my name is how to say! i am in buddism of south korea. yet sorry next i open my name.
    nice to meet you!
    when i was in japan i met some sophia university suddenly so today i used first time in voice order at google. i met here. some i wanted.
    so i guessed that is better to left greeting with my email. anyway thank you hear my message!
    see you later!

  • […] Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and wellbeing, shares that to reframe your fear of failure it is helpful to give yourself permission to learn. […]

  • […] Tara Mohr, an expert on women’s leadership and well-being, shares that to reframe your fear of failure it is helpful to give yourself permission to learn. […]

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