Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Finding pleasure in the discomfort of learning new skills

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I often recommend Mindset, by Carol Dweck. It’s an entertaining read and it describes well the phenomenon of learning resistance. For some people, learning something new is the opposite of a pleasure: new ideas may contradict old notions with which they’ve become comfortable—so comfortable, in fact, that they see them as part of who they are, their identity. A new idea can seem like a direct personal attack.

And that’s just new ideas: new skills are even worse since the initial stages of learning a skill make us feel awkward and embarrassed by our struggles. This seems true even when we are young. Parents will recall how frustrated, irritable, and angry a todldler becomes as s/he first starts learning how to walk. Crawling is no longer good enough, but walking is too new and too hard, and meltdowns into tears and tantrums are frequent during that transition from crawling to toddling.

Of course, the very young have little choice in the matter. They must learn to sit up, to crawl, to walk, to talk, to feed themselves, to go to potty, to dress themselves. Each step is for a while a frustrating struggle, but you’ve doubtless noticed that those same skills, now mastered, no longer arouse in you such strong emotions. You probably do all those as a matter of course now that you’ve learned them and even forgotten your early struggles and frustration.

Adults—who in general can choose what they do—spend most of their time practicing skills long since mastered, at work and at home. (One exception I’ve noticed in business is that lower-ranking adults often do not have a choice in learning a skill: a clerk is simply required to master the intricacies of the new copier system or the new accounting software or the new phone system. I once observed a company president, who wanted to transfer a call on the new phone system, somewhat piteously call out to his secretary to please come in and do it for him. She had had to learn the new system; he had easily avoided learning it, doubtless because as president he didn’t like feeling awkward and ignorant, feelings common for any novice.)

Because they spend almost all their time exercising skills already mastered, adults who begin to learn a new skill are often terrible students: they know clearly what they want to do, and they are acutely aware of what they feel are failures (rather than practice trials) as they try to learn to play the piano, or to speak a foreign language, or to cook a meal (for those adults just learning to cook), and so on. If they have become unaccustomed to the early stages of learning, the natural awkwardness and uncertainty that a novice experiences so embarrass them that it feels almost toxic. They have forgotten using play as a way to learn something — you play with it, building familiarity and knowledge and skill. They have forgotten how the early states of learning can be experienced as play.

Instead, the early stages of learning something new becomes a struggle to accomplish a specific goal rather than an exploration — it feels like a bad thing rather than a good sign. New ventures feel hazardous, and novelty in one’s routines is often initially unsettling if now downright distasteful. (Those who have read (and thus enjoyed) Patrick O’Brian’s series of British Navy novels about Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin will be familiar with the benediction upon parting, Que no haya novedad—May no new thing arise.)

The solution, as is often the case, is to adjust one’s attitude. That is described well in Dweck’s book. Accept eagerly that initial awkwardness as a welcome harbinger of a new skill. Look at it as the color that gladdens a prospector, who seeks gold and sees the color as a promise that the mother lode can be found higher up with more effort.

Focus your attention initially on your progress (which in the early stages of learning something new is remarkably good) rather than on your results (which in the early stages of learning something new are best used only to measure progress). Play with the new idea or tool or skill, trying this and that, observing what happens, learning from the flops, enjoying the successes, with no real goal other than to learn. The initial goal is only to gain familiarity and experience. Criticism — especially self-criticism — is misplaced. There’s nothing to criticize because all those trials and false starts are exactly how one learns and should be viewed as play, not as a white-knuckled effort to achieve perfection. This play is not (yet) a serious attempt as accomplishment, but rather is learning, is practice, is seeing how it works, is exercise. You are building a net of experience to catch skills as they develop, enabling you to practice them more.

If you have continued to learn new things and thus are a practiced learner, those initial difficulties are not a problem because they are now familiar. You have, through practice and experience, learned how to learn. You know how to navigate the turbulent waters of the early stages.

In contrast, those who have successfully avoided learning new things for any length of time have lost the skill (and the familiarity) of learning. For them the awkwardness and uncertainty in the initial stages of learning are embarrassing and almost detestable. The feelings are alien to their adult lives, unfamiliar and uncomfortable. These adults, unpracticed in learning, fail to see the implicit promise of the difficulties: that initial difficulties show that there’ is much to be gained from the effort. They are acutely aware of the irritating grain of sand and don’t realize that the irritation can produce a pearl of great value: a skill whose mastery will be a source of great satisfaction and whose exercise will provide continuing enjoyment (cf. traditional shaving — once mastered, every morning begins with a pleasurable ritual).

I’ve just embarked upon learning how to follow a whole-food plant-based diet (in which I eat only roots, stalks, leaves, buds, flowers, fruit, and seeds, plus mushrooms), and I am finding the usual (and familiar) awkwardness of a new beginning. I continue to try to be careful in the carbs I eat (no foods that contain refined sugar and/or are made from flour, no fruit juice, no white potatoes, corn, or rice in any form) — that much is familiar — but I’m having to learn new patterns of meals and meal preparation. When I routinely followed an omnivorous diet, I could throw together a decent meal with little thought. I knew the drill, and I easily stayed within a zone of comfort, trying new recipes as I felt like it.

The basic patterns was to choose the animal protein (the meat (the particular cut of beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, whatever), or the particular seafood (fish, prawns, mussels, whatever), or eggs, and/or cheese). Having chosen that, I then selected the format (stir-fry, stew, roast, sauté, whatever) and which plant foods to have as side dishes. That’s how I planned the meal. Without an animal protein to use as the starting point and focus, I was at a loss how to begin planning about the meal.

It felt like the old knock knock joke that begins, “I have a new knock-knock joke. You start.” and when the other automatically says, “Knock, knock” and you respond “Who’s there?”, there’s a baffled full stop—who is there? The other person reaches for what to say and comes up empty-handed and disconcerted. The vacuum in the meal pattern, once occupied by animal protein, felt like that. Having lost that starting point, I did not know where to start.

But within a few days I figured out how to create new meals. I now usually start by thinking of the grain and the beans I will use (since I now include a serving of grain and a serving of beans in each meal), and build from there, adding other vegetables to that core.

The transition did not take long. Within a week, I was reading How Not to Die: Discover the Foods Scientifically Proven to Prevent and Reverse Disease I started to find my footing. I felt the change in direction start to become familiar and to recognize new patterns. Dr. Greger’s “Daily Dozen” (PDF) was useful as a general guide and template, providing targets and structure.

For me learning is pleasurable. I love the initial confusion because I know that soon I will feel ideas start to come together and make sense as I gain experience—and to make a new sort of sense. I was almost bubbling with happiness as I dreamed up new combination to try and as I tasted new dishes I made up. I wrote about my new standard breakfast after a few days, but I then realized I can improve it even more by including a pinch of herbs and spices to boost its antioxidant power.

I’m excited. It’s not every day that one has the chance to go in a new direction, and the fact that it’s healthful makes it all the better. 🙂

I’m sure that from time to time and on special dinners with family I will eat some animal-derived food, but my daily diet will certainly be a whole-food plant-based diet (with fungi). I have already extended my meal-preparation repertoire with some little tricks I learned from the book that increase nutritional value. This post describes in some detail my diet and approach and the reasons for it and the lessons learned along the way.

Update November 2019: I just went through the same process of starting something new, learning some lessons from experience, and gaining skill when I started making my own tempeh. The post at the link includes a “lessons learned” from each batch so you can see the process and progress of learning that.

Update December 2019: I finally located part of the reason for my disorientation. It strikes me now as allied to the disorientation one gets when, long accustomed to watching movies or plays with a clearly defined leading role or roles accompanied by supporting roles, one watches an ensemble piece: the experience of unconsciously searching for the lead character is at first confusing — “Who are all these characters? Who’s the lead?” Compare “The Return of the Secaucus Seven ” or “The Anniversary Party” the “star” to “Hamlet” or “High Noon” — the latter two are involve a central character and various supporting roles; the former two have equal billing for various roles.

The same with a plant-based meal: it’s an ensemble piece, not one with a lead (the role meat plays in most meals). But, like any good ensemble movie or play, a plant-based meal can, in my experience, be more interesting than the traditional structure of having the whole thing centered on one character (or food). The interplay and relationships among the characters/ingredients enrich the whole with an equality of diversity.

Still, if you are accustomed to preparing meals on the lead-character model, the ensemble meal is at first somewhat bewildering: “Who’s the lead?” becomes “Where do I start?”

Written by LeisureGuy

20 May 2019 at 9:58 am

2 Responses

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  1. excellent

    Patrick DonEgan

    20 June 2019 at 3:50 pm

  2. Thanks Michael. As I mentioned I am a lifelong “fixed” mindset person and I have always felt embarrassed and ashamed when I can’t do something. I’ll try to remember the “glint of gold” metaphor when that feeling comes.

    David Cain (@DavidDCain)

    4 December 2019 at 7:57 am

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