Last week I wrote about three things that get in the way of being a better learner. If you recall, I noted that too often we over-value the outcomes, hold back from the fear and pain of disappointment, and allow ourselves to get easily distracted by other things that “feel” better than the hard work it takes to grow. This week, I want to follow that up with a discussion about the mentality it takes to be the learner who gets results in the long run.
As I noted previously, my own journey during the social distancing we have been experiencing has been through listening to psychology podcasts while going through my daily workouts. I kept finding themes as I did this, and ironically they all led to the same place; when we have the right attitude, we learn faster, get better, and that typically leads to very good results.
I’ve continued to listen to some of these podcasts this month, because I found it so valuable. Today, I was listening to one of my favorites, “The Psychology Podcast” by Scott Barry Kaufman. He interviewed Pete Carroll who stopped me in my tracks when he said, “The goal isn’t to win the Superbowl, but to be at your absolute best when you get the chance to play in one.” Throughout the interview he was able to support this with an emphasis on his role as a coach; to create an atmosphere where his players are enjoying what they are doing, while he supports and challenges them to be their best possible self every day. Man, THAT is the sweet spot as a coach, and it ties in perfectly with what I want to address here about having the right mentality.
The first key in having the right mentality about being a better learner is to focus on how what you are mastering can benefit others. Yep, think bigger than yourself. I know, you’re likely thinking, “Oh great, here’s another ‘hippie’ psychologist,” and you’d be wrong. Here’s why. When we conceptualize what we are doing as being a benefit to others, we automatically tie into a default mechanism of the brain; to increase motivation and commitment to maintain social connections. What we are trying to get better at doesn’t matter. Whether it is blocking for a teammate to score, or improve our writing to help someone else understand something, or prepare a meal that is healthy for someone else, our brains open up our capacity to pay attention to the details and remember more simply because we intend to help someone else. As a benefit, if you do get better and help someone else out, you also tend to build stronger relationships.
A second strategy for having the right mentality about learning is to focus on the big picture. I realize this sounds awfully similar to the previous paragraph, but in reality there is more to it. Yes, benefiting others beyond our selves is “bigger”. However, in this instance I’m talking about recognizing that you are not mastering everything in one failed swoop. Today’s work/practice/assignment is only one piece of the whole. So you aren’t trying to be “perfect” today so that you can be perfect in the game (or test, or performance….). Instead, today’s effort is about trying to figure out how to do what you are doing NOW as well as you can, and knowing that in the future you can continue to hone this skill.
Another benefit to realizing this is only one piece of the bigger picture is that you take off some of the pressure. Again, you don’t have to be perfect about this today. But trying to be the best you can for today opens up the door to learning as much as possible. So as an infielder in baseball, working on fielding ground balls to your left and right means challenging yourself on opening up your range. You won’t get 27 ground outs hit to you in a game, and you definitely won’t need this skill as you run the bases, but it is an important part of the whole of what it takes to play your position, be in the line-up, and help your team win games. Similarly, today’s reading isn’t the whole of the test you will take later, or the paper you need to write. But the knowledge you gain might be an important element of one or both of those tasks later on in the class. By recognizing that what you are doing is part of a bigger picture, you allow yourself the freedom to focus in depth now, and lower the pressure of feeling like this has to be prefect in order to be right when it counts.
In a similar fashion, the third aspect of having a better learner mentality is to accurately assess luck versus skill. The famous Yankee pitcher Lefty Gomez once stated, “I’d rather be lucky than good.” Although most of us would argue the opposite, there is a nugget of genius here. You have to recognize the boundary line of what you can and cannot control. No matter how many times you practice passing the baton with a teammate, you can’t control her taking it cleanly, nor how well the other teams execute the same skill. Instead, all you really get to control is the attitude that you will give it your best right now to do this as well as you possibly can. By letting go of the outcome, you increase the focus you have on quality. If you are having surgery, isn’t that the best you can hope for from your surgeon? She knows she can’t control how your body will react after surgery (that’s why you sign disclaimers!), but she does know she can be as accurate as possible with the tools she is using to repair tissue damage. And that then increases your chances of healing.
I noted in Being a Better Learner, Part 1 that giving greater attention and focus to learning improves the likelihood you reach the goals you set out for yourself. Part of the equation here is in having the right mentality about learning what you are doing. This is about having an intent to master what you are doing now, in part because there could be a benefit to someone other than yourself, You also need to keep in mind that what you are working on at this moment is only part of the bigger picture. It isn’t about being perfect so that you guarantee success later, but about figuring out how this piece of the puzzle works for now. And in the process of learning, make an accurate judgement of the value of skill and luck in what you are trying to accomplish. There are things you cannot control, and things you can. Giving the most attention to the latter is the strategy to helping yourself be lucky more often. So this week, work on having a Better Learner Attitude with these strategies. Should you find yourself needing more help in this area, why wait? Make the call, bring in an expert.