If you have been following my blog, you recognize that I “disappear” for a month every now and again. While I realize this may not be “good business”, it usually happens because I’m taking time to learn. Last week I noted this on my Instagram account (@psycoach.pspc), and declared I would focus the next month on posting about how to be a better learner. So here goes…

I remember my first semester of college, and taking the required English course. The professor was a German woman, and she was a task master. We were required to write and submit one essay for each day of the course (three days a week). Somehow she was able to turn these around with a grade and comments at the next class meeting, and did so with public comment on ups and downs from our submissions. 

By the fourth week I was worn out. I didn’t enjoy writing, and felt pressure as I wrote because I was constantly thinking about what she was going to think of what I had done. I was also worried about passing the class, as I was told by two high school counselors that I “wasn’t smart enough to go to college.” And then she gave us a prompt that seemed impossible; “Should colleges be responsible for student morals?”

I spent several hours scratching out ideas, attempting to write, and wadding up paper out of frustration. I was trapped. I was trying to write the paper I thought she wanted. Out of frustration I decided to switch course. If she was going to make me this mad, then I was going to get at her. So I wrote a selacious paper about late night hook-ups and methods for college youth to get around all sorts of rules. I no longer cared aobut the grade. Instead, I was focused on writing to get a reaction. And it definitely worked.

The next class all papers were distributed back to the class but mine. The professor started to admonish the class for writing “soft” responses, and then she started to read my paper aloud. I was horrified as the class gave gasps, giggles, and guffahs. When she was done, she noted how this was a fantastic paper because it had a strong voice in support of its position, with a serious attempt to sway the opinion of the reader. I sat dumb-struck. I thought I was landing a blow for the angry and frustrated. Instead, I was being praised.

This was perhaps the most powerful lesson I could have had early in college, and ties directly to what I want to cover this month about being a better learner. What the assignment presented is exactly what we all face when we are trying to accomplish something, whether it be as a student, an athlete, or any other area of life where we are expected to perform.

All too often we encounter “problems” that are self-made in performance contexts. The first is that we tend to over-value outcomes & results. This becomes an unecessary “trap” as we anticipate that the end result will be the definition of ourselves. To be certain, results do matter. After all, we do keep score. But if the outcome was the only thing, then every sport season would be a failure for every team and individual accept the final champion. How absurd would that be? Think beyond sport, and look at how we live in the world. Would you turn down needed dental work because your dentist wasn’t the valedictorian of his dental school?

The second problem we often encounter is fear. I get so frustrated when I hear coaches and parents tell someone “don’t be affraid!” Fear is an emotion, and you cannot control emotional reactions. They are essential survival mechanisms. But as we have evolved to be sentient beings who contemplate our own existence in the scope of time and social standing, fear is really about pain. We begin to believe that failure will create a permanent mark in our social standing, as though we will suffer embarrassment as people only remember us for not having success. Similarly, many develop a fixed mindset whereby they believe that one failure is equivalent to a permanent lacking of skills and abilities necessary to be accomplished. Once again, we create a trap because of faulty thinking and beliefs that create a predicted state of pain.

As I took my hiatus from writing last month in my own attempt to learn more, I took a deep dive in listening to podcasts by fellow sport psychology peers (you can see some of what I posted on Twitter @sportpsycoach under #miles4mastery). And this brings me to the third problem many of us face when trying to improve ourselves, falling victim to distractions. In short, we often find ourselves struggling to make progress because we deviate our behavior away from the “hard work” it takes to learn and get better. Instead of accepting that learning will be ugly, uncomfortable, and full of mistakes (see above issues regarding over-valuing outcomes and the pain of fear), we instead turn our focus and effort toward things that “feel” better because they are more fun or less threatening.

So how do you get past these “problems” and gain traction? The key is to focus on learning, rather than the result. Yes, having goals is important. But the reality is that the more attention you put on improving rather than on achieving results, the more likley you are to reach your goals. When you look back on my story about writing in college, you might gain a little insight. Rather than worrying yourself over how others will perceive your efforts, or how things will turn out, give your best effort to accomplish your own purpose. Test the boundaries of your own capabilities to know how good your skills are, and where you need to make improvements/adjustments. This takes the courage to face your fears and brave disappointment. For myself, not only did I prove to myself that I belonged in college, I became a tutor for others on how to write and graduated college with higher grades than I had in high school. I got better by pushing a boundary.

The rest of this month will be dedicated to writing about strategies you can employ on your own. This is a great time to practice being a “learner”. There are no games to play, no presentations to be graded on, and little public evaluation as we continue social distancing measures. Instead, this is a perfect time to grow, to be a better learner who is ready to take on new challenges when restrictions are lifted and we resume past activities. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.

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