If you’re going to gain any skill or ability, you will go through a learning curve. How much you feel that learning curve is dependent on two things…
You’ll want to know what these two things are so you can work the learning curve in your favor in the future.
But first – what’s a learning curve? Here’s the Wiki:
“A learning curve is a graphical representation of how an increase in learning (measured on the vertical axis) comes from greater experience (the horizontal axis); or how the more someone (or something) performs a task, the better they get at it.”
In slang, we often say that something difficult to learn has a ‘steep learning curve’, with the implication that steep things – like hills – feel difficult.
But if you take a look at a steep curve on a graph, it indicates you’re learning a lot in a short amount of time. Which may or may not be difficult.
A learning curve can be steep, shallow, short, or long, but only one thing really matters:
how much do you feel the curve?
When you feel the curve, you know it. You feel your deficiency in this skill or ability.
When you feel the curve, you’re more likely to become frustrated. And you’re more likely to quit before you get through the curve.
Two things influence how much you feel a learning curve. And if you use them to your advantage, you’re going to navigate the curve better. It’s worth understanding these two things because what other option do you have? Quitting?
How much you feel a learning curve is influenced by…
Aptitude is your natural ability or skill. You were born with it. If a learning curve is for a skill that is within your aptitude, you’ll likely only feel the learning curve minimally, if at all.
It’s good to capitalize on your natural aptitudes by learning skills that naturally fit with them. But if you only ever do things where you don’t feel the learning curve, it’s likely not expanding your abilities much.
Aptitude is great, but aptitude alone won’t get you very far. We’ve all heard a story somewhere along the way where a kid has a natural aptitude for sports or school, but doesn’t put the work in to better themself. And then what happens? All the other kids who weren’t as naturally talented at that thing, but who worked their tails off caught up and surpassed the natural talent in the end.
You do not have aptitude for everything. And if you’d like to write yourself off because you don’t have aptitude for something, that’s fine. But you’re overlooking something major –
You have aptitude for something, and you can exploit that aptitude to get you through the learning curve of something else for which you have less aptitude.
An example; if your aptitude for public speaking is low (you get nerves, you easily forget what you wanted to say), but your aptitude for things like mental imagery is high (you can easily picture things in detail in your mind), you can exploit that to help you improve as a public speaker. There is a well known technique for doing just this…
Rather than banging your head against a wall trying to become someone who is naturally talented at flowing through a speech, you do this: make a memory palace.
With this mental imagery technique, you imagine your own home (or a similar place you know well). Assign key points or phrases in your speech to each place in your home. You’ll give your speech by walking through your house in your mind’s eye and allowing your mental image of the living room, for example, to remind you of the key point you assigned to that room, and the subsequent details that will come from that key point.
By doing this, you put your aptitude in one arena to use to help you improve in another arena.
Now, this sort of exploitation of aptitude will certainly make it feel more doable to get through a difficult feeling learning curve, but the second thing that determines how much you feel a learning curve will be what gets you through or what becomes your undoing…
How You Interact With Uncertainty
“Pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” That line is from 18th-century polymath Jeremy Bentham and outlines exactly what motivates everything we do in life. But which motivates you more? Avoiding pain or acquiring pleasure?
Loss aversion – the tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains – has been well-established. Most humans have some degree of loss aversion that influences how the act.
But there’s a sizable degree of nuance within the realm of being motivated to avoid losses or acquire pleasure.
A 2007 study lead by Russell A. Poldrack, professor of psychology at Stanford University found the following,“we also found that individuals displayed varying degrees of sensitivity to loss aversion, and these wide-ranging neural responses predicted differences in their behavior. For instance, people with stronger neural sensitivity to both losses and gains were more risk-averse.“
That is, if your brain is more sensitive to losing and gaining, you’re less likely to want to take a risk. And learning some new skill includes a degree of risk-taking. There’s no guarantee you’re actually going to get or avoid the thing you are trying to get or avoid by learning this skill. You don’t know yet if it was “well worth your time” or a “waste of time”. You aren’t sure if it will work, or if you’ll get it, or if you’ll fail.
And there’s a second layer of nuance to your loss aversion…
Dr. Poldrack shared a theory that losses may trigger greater activity in brain regions that process emotions, such as the insula and amygdala.
Meaning: if the parts of your brain where you process emotion – namely, the amygdala and the insula – become more active when you experience a loss, you may be more likely to avoid putting yourself in a position where you could experience a loss.
Interestingly, amygdala damage has been show to eliminate loss aversion with regard to money. This suggests that your amygdala is a key player in how you handle loss aversion.
Learning a new skill requires that you accept a level of uncertainty. If you are someone who is less likely to bring uncertainty into your life by avoiding taking risks, you’re more likely to feel the discomfort of a learning curve. This is because learning curves include a natural amplification of risk, potential loss, and uncertainty, which will trigger your brain in different ways than someone else’s brain might be triggered.
You can imagine how this could influence how a learning curve feels to you. Not only is your brain dealing with the neural activity of the actual learning of this new skill, you’re also dealing with really feeling the fear, emotion, or discomfort, of being in risk-taking waters that are deeper than you’d prefer.
And so, to navigate your next learning curve in a way that feels more doable and less like you should quit because it’s just ‘too much’, it really comes down to understanding yourself better:
Where do your natural aptitudes lie and how can you put them to work for you in arenas where you don’t naturally excel?
How do you interact with uncertainty?
How much are you motivated by loss aversion?
Learning new skills is awesome. Feeling like you suck is not awesome. Take some time to learn about your own personal nuances in these realms and put what you’ve uncovered into your next learning curve, then let me know what new skill you’ve acquired from doing so.
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