February 1, 2023

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The Education Specialists

Learn Faster by Giving Up the Fear of Embarrassment

It is obvious that human beings are well-equipped to adapt to changes within or around them. Whether we are thinking about the science of evolution or the research on how we regulate emotions, there is lots of evidence that human beings are good at learning. It’s possibly the thing we do best, the thing that distinguishes us from other species. And we also know that much of learning feels good. Our brains are happiest when they are being used (if we measure happy by things like nutrients consumed or produced). Our minds are also happy when we acquire new knowledge and even happier when we can use that knowledge to get results we like.

So it must take something powerful to stop human beings from seeking out an experience that feels good while they do it and that produces useful results. Why isn’t every marketplace filled with people looking for the latest, greatest ways to learn?

What stops almost everyone is fear. It’s not fear that they cannot learn. It’s fear that they will be embarrassed while they are learning. The fear that the process of learning leaves you exposed and vulnerable stops people from learning more and learning faster and learning with more enjoyment. We only need to be embarrassed once and we can reset eons of evolution. The learning switch gets moved to standby and we wait for a situation that feels safe enough for us to nudge it back to “play.”

The problem is that there are relatively slim pickings for learning in the environments that feel safest. They are the environments where we have already learned most of what there is to learn, environments that are safe because they are already well-known to us. It’s possible to learn in finer increments in this kind of safety, but it is much harder to learn the big and new things that would make a big difference to our well-being or performance.

If you want to learn something big and new and wonderfully useful, you have to pay the price of admission. You have to sign a waiver that says something like: “I promise not to sue if I feel confused or embarrassed by my experience in this playground.”

When you think about it, every time you were afraid of learning, you were also afraid of being embarrassed. While you might want to dress up that fear as a fear of failure, it wasn’t really the possibility of failing that stopped you. You’ve failed at lots of stuff that wasn’t terminal. In a crisis, in the moment when failure is real and inevitable, you probably know how to cope. You might not like it, but it wouldn’t stop you from trying.

What’s stopping you from trying is the terror of being vulnerable and knowing that other people are seeing that you do not understand and you are not competent. You will lose all your cool. You might lose status or you might lose trust. You might look at yourself through the eyes of people watching and lose faith in your ability to learn, to master new skills, to be a success.

The best way to avoid this terror is to start with it in mind. Know that learning means that you will be confused and exposed and incompetent. And then ask yourself: is the change you want worth the risk? Because confusion and vulnerability are only fatal if you are really determined to make them fatal. For most people, they are a temporary discomfort on the road to something much more important.

Yes. You are scared that people will see you in a way you do not like to see yourself. It’s possible. (Although, it’s like the old nuggets about worrying about the clothes you choose to wear. You’re walking into a room full of people who are so worried about their own choices, they might not even notice yours). Of course, it’s much better to study with someone who understands that feeling of terrified vulnerability and builds some protection into the process for you. But in the end, there’s one question that trumps how scared you are.

What will be better when you’re working at full human capacity to learn in a way that feels good and generates great results?