Learning New Skills

Every semester of my nuclear physics degree was the same story. I opened up the new books for my courses and I didn’t understand anything. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t able to solve equations. I didn’t even understand many of the words, let alone the symbols. The reason for this is that I didn’t have the neural pathways to fully process the new information. It was unchartered territory for me.

Mindsets when Meeting the Scary Unknown

This is a scary situation, venturing into the unknown with the risk of failure. These kinds of situations test your mindsets and beliefs. What kind of beliefs do you have about yourself? Are there subjects or skills that you deem above you? Do you say, “I will never be good at this?”


My Mindset

My mindset when it comes to learning is simple and empowering. “I will be good at it eventually”. What does this mean? I am definitely confident when it comes to learning new skills. I’ve had some good formative experiences throughout my childhood and adolescence, which does help a lot. I believe, however, that this mindset is a fundamental human truth – a principle of life. We will get good at it eventually. The problem is most people never get to “eventually”.

The Way We Learn

A network of neuronsWhy do we struggle in the beginning of learning any new task? It is simply a matter of insufficient neural pathways. Understanding something is a process of building simple neural pathways for all those minor facts, words and the like, and then progressively forming connections between them. As you start forming more neural pathways and connections, the learning process speeds up. You’ve probably experienced it while studying: The first 80% of the course or semester is spent in a constant struggle, but when exams grow nearer you start to understand at a faster and faster rate.

Powering Through the Difficulties

We have an immense capacity for learning new skills, but we are bad at handling uncertainty and struggle. When cortisol is pumping in your brain, you resort to old habits (neural pathways) for masking the pain. These habits might be playing a game, watching TV, eating junk food or drinking alcohol. If you struggle through the beginning of learning any new skills, you’ll eventually reach the point where your mastery gives you an intrinsic motivation to keep going.

How Learning a New Skill is Similar to Understanding New Viewpoints

Now I want you to take a leap for me, because this connection might not be completely obvious. I believe what I just discussed is a similar situation to when someone is talking to you about some deep insight they have about life. We don’t have sufficient neural pathways to process the few words they are presenting their insight with. If we don’t view this person as some kind of thought guru, we will quickly brush off what is being said and process it with our own set of entirely inappropriate neural pathways for the relevant insight.

Words are Inadequate

Deep insights of life are not something that can be shared fully. The words cannot convey the years of experience and thinking behind it. It will be a bit like explaining beautiful scenery to a visually impaired person. He doesn’t see the intricate details and how it all fit together. He sees a foggy looking mountain and what looks like a pond, but might be a parking lot. It takes time and repetition for him to internalize all the intricate details and start connecting it into what will be a similar mental picture.

Be Open

Man and woman sitting back to backThere is much wisdom in the people around you. We can all get better at listening and thinking about what others say. I am often guilty of waiting for my turn to speak, instead of listening to what is being said. Do not brush off what other people tell you as nonsense or stupid. Try to see where both you and the other person are coming from. Be open.

Seek and You Shall Find

If you keep searching for truth it will come to you eventually, but it will come in an unexpected way. The words you learn from have infinite meanings.

To Wrap It up:

  • It takes time and repetition to fully understand.
  • Know you will eventually understand.
  • Different experiences create different neural pathways or brain maps.
  • Words convey little of the rich meaning behind them.
  • You often process the words in a vastly different way from the original meaning.
  • Stay open to new viewpoints.
  • Truth will come to those who search for it, but seldom in the way expected.

Stay open,