Opening up for learning

People who read this blog usually are interested in learning. People who contact us are working hard to improve their learning skills.  Some of the people write to thank us for our job, and this is very satisfying. Others ask for advice.  Many conversations start from technical questions and quite soon deal with deal with deep philosophical issues.  This post is partially inspired by what you can read here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Do not be afraid to feel stupid.

One of my students said that she could no master the visualization as long as she staid in control. She made great progress once she gave up the control and allowed herself not only to feel stupid but also enjoy being ridiculous. Opening up for learning is hard since we take a personal risk. We give up a part of our perceived confidence and status to win something entirely new and worthwhile.

A different approach to the metaphor of a half-empty cup.

We understand very well that in order to learn something new we should have all the prerequisite skills and knowledge. Sometimes we can acquire the prerequisite skills while we work on the main skill, but the more we know in the are of interest the better we are equipped to learn more. Unless our knowledge stops us from learning new things.

The most common case is the crash of paradigms. Someone who is very successful using a certain paradigm will have a prejudice learning something that contradicts his knowledge or status. If you take someone who perceives himself to be an advanced student or a professor and present a different perception of some basic information, the response will usually be negative.

One of the most common examples of paradigm shifts is the example of the earth circling around the sun. During the lifetime of Galileo Galilei, there were many talented mathematicians. Many of them used very complex calculations to map and predict the locations of the heavenly bodies. Their computations were almost correct. They had a good solution for most situations.  Some of them were looking for slightly more accurate tables, definitely not for a new cosmological theory. They had no motivation to learn it.

Understanding that our knowledge is limited, and deep comprehension of these limitations is something very few people have. Many people consider their cup to be half-empty or half-full. Very few people are willing to empty a cup full of something to make space for something better.


Openness is a major character trait. Some people are simply more open than others. Some cultures are more open than others. It is pretty clear that people in the areas incubating startups will be more open than in the areas of traditional crafts. Families also play a huge role in openness. If you are expected to take a certain role in society, you will probably be less open. Immigrants and multilingual people tend to be more open than non-immigrants and so on. Most people become less open as they age.

We could speculate that the reasons are evolutionary. Openness increases risks. The gains get higher, and also the losses. If you have nothing to lose and a lot to win, you will tend to be open. If you have everything, it makes sense to play safe. This idea may be applied at any scale.

I am not entirely sure to which extent you can control your openness through a conscious effort. Reading books helps, but does it really affect our curiosity? We can purchase novelty items, yet if we do not easily integrate them in our lives we are not true early adaptors. (This is something I learn the hard way every time I buy something.) Learning new things about new cultures may open us to diversity or may strengthen our stereotypes. Relocation may open us or may cause us to close in a defensive cultural bubble.

Is Lev an open person?

It is only natural to try and build a diagnosis for yourself. Are you an open person? Am I an open person? My personal situation is pretty strange. Being an immigrant, secular, with Ph.D. and working with cutting edge tech, you would expect me to be an extremely open person. Yet this is not so. I have ADHD overfocus. I was born in a small town and I live in the same small town since I was 14 years old. My parents are very traditional: they did not change anything in their home unless it was entirely ruined by extensive usage. So I have the benefit of enjoying both extremes of the openness range. I am equally driven by curiosity and stability. If you think this is confusing, you are probably right. At the same time, it makes me somewhat more flexible and empathic than I would be otherwise. Now, you are welcome to do a similar analysis with yourself and people around you.

Converging and diverging learning.

I am taking the terminology from creativity to learning. We may either step out of the comfort zone and learn entirely new things or stay in our comfort zone and learn more about the things we already know. Staying in your comfort zone is a perfectly good choice. It allows to become really good in something and leverage the strengths, builds up confidence and security, generates a social status. Most of our efforts should probably be invested within our comfort zone converging on certain areas expertise. And yet…

As we invest in learning totally new areas, we feel stupid and insecure for a short while. But we will probably make a lot of progress very fast. We may be lucky enough to discover the strengths and opportunities we did not suspect that we have. And if we choose the area wisely, this knowledge may provide us with competitive advantages.

Portfolio approach.

We live in an era of changes. Very little stays unchanged for more than a couple of years. Most changes are technological yet some are cultural and political. In any case, stability does not pay off anymore. Any career and social position are potentially threatened by the tsunami of innovation some people call “singularity”. This change also generates many opportunities for those capable to let go, act and take chances, or simply curious and energetic.

Learning something entirely new like cryptocurrency and quantum computing is a bet. We do not know if the relevant technology will be successful and which flavor of the tech will prevail. Investing in the ability to learn is a great investment, as each bet we take provides more benefits and fewer risks. This also means that we learn differently. For most of us, there is simply no time to invest in mastering one certain skill or subject, as it changes, yet we can build a strong portfolio of learning that is partially future-proof.

Cleaning the stables.

There is a myth about Hercules diverging rivers to clean up old and filthy stables. All of us have filthy stables in our minds. The beautiful mental palaces we build to remember things need to be constantly maintained. As the information becomes irrelevant, it slows us down. To really move forward we need to learn not only to remember the things we need but also forget the things we do not need anymore. We will be tempted to reuse the building blocks, like associations and metaphors, for the new skills we need. This may be a good idea in some cases, but confusing in most situations. Occasionally we simply need to become mindful of here and now, embrace the experience, and clean up the leftovers of the old palaces.

Humor is a wonderful tool to “let go”. Anna used to teach: funny associations are very easy to remember. This extra memorability would not be worth the effort. They are much more than that. They make training easier and joyful. We are less tired and intimidated stepping out of the comfort zone. Reviewing the old associations alone or with a mentor is fun. They are also a great metaphor for learning.

We do not focus on funny associations any more since people assumed they need to have funny associations ALL THE TIME and that would be counter-effective. So we changed the guidelines.

Changing the guidelines.

We change the guidelines all the time. Our old materials sometimes contradict our new materials. Occasionally this is due to the new scientific results, but more often it is due to stupid mistakes our students occasionally make. Certain things we can afford in 1:1, when we have great and immediate feedback, cannot be recommended for someone whose only contact with us is through the written texts. Even doctors change their recommendations all the time, as they try to balance the useful effects of treatments vs the side effects. Before the 1930s a visit to a doctor would probably have a negative effect on your longevity, yet the medicine changed and improved. So does almost every other aspect of our life.

If we do not embrace changes we will probably generate more harm then help. If we accept too many experimental ideas we might also be a danger to ourselves and others. The balance is hard to master, yet we should strive to do so…

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