Why learning hurts and how not to give up

Learning is usually talked about in very positive terms, with a laser-like focus on the benefits. It enhances your mind, fuels creativity and innovation, changes your outlook and often delivers real transformation. What’s not to love? 

The trouble is, there’s one indisputable truth about learning that tends to get overlooked and it is often the reason people lose confidence, get demoralised and give up.

The plain fact is, learning hurts. 

When you are in the process of learning, you go from knowing to not knowing in an instant. 

Whether you’re learning to drive a car, dance the waltz or use a new software system, there is always a dawning moment when you realise just how much you don’t know. 

We’ve all been there and it feels uncomfortable at best, and overwhelming and futile at worst. It’s the underlying reason people procrastinate, defer or stop trying altogether.  

The trick is to understand the psychology behind this discomfort and have a few tools up your sleeve to navigate it. That way, no matter what you are learning and how challenging it is, you won’t feel compelled to give up.

Instead you’ll keep adding new skills to your armoury and creating opportunities to move from incompetence to mastery, which from a career perspective can only ever add value and encourage progression.

The Four Stages of Learning

Back in the 70s, a man called Noel Burch developed the Four Stages of Competence, explaining the psychological states we experience when we move from skill incompetence to competence to outright mastery.

For the purpose of illustration, imagine you are learning to ballroom dance for the first time.

Before you start you are in stage one – Unconscious Incompetence

At this level, you are blissfully ignorant and excited about the prospect of learning. 

How hard can it be? You’ve been watching Strictly, have been imagining the sparkly outfits you’ll get to wear and how good you’re going to look as you glide across the dance floor.

You have no idea how challenging the steps are or how difficult it might be to learn the routines. You don’t know what you don’t know, and as yet, you have a complete lack of knowledge and skills. 

At this stage your confidence far exceeds your abilities!  

Enter stage two – Conscious Incompetence

AKA the really hard bit. 

You’re in the dance studio having your first lesson. You’ve been here all morning. The instructor is explaining the intricacies of the most basic step that your feet are simply refusing to follow. As you hear the theory behind the move for what feels like the hundredth time, your mind is spinning and your body aches.

Inevitably, the moment has arrived when it’s dawning on you that there is more to ballroom dancing than you thought. 

You also realise that others are much more competent than you are and that they can easily do things that you are struggling with. 

Staring down the barrel of incompetence, this is the point at which many give up or look for ways to justify stopping to avoid feeling inadequate, appearing stupid or being seen to fail. 

But fear not, there are ways to combat this so keep reading! 

If you keep practicing, you will get to stage three – Conscious Competence

You’ve been attending your classes every week and your perseverance has paid off. You can now, with real concentration, dance a basic waltz. 

You still have some more advanced moves to add and you make the odd mistake, but you no longer feel embarrassed as you can feel your skills and capability growing. 

Ballroom dancing is starting to feel like fun!

Finally, with consistent practice, you enter stage four – Conscious Competence

After umpteen hours of dedicated dance lessons and many more in extracurricular training, you can waltz without thinking about the steps. 

There’s no effort needed. In fact, at the end of the dance you have no recollection of what happened, as if your feet and body moved all by itself. 

Welcome to the mastery phase. You are so competent that you waltz as if it’s second nature. And the feeling is brilliant. 

Dealing with Stage Two

To ensure you arrive at the holy grail of conscious competence, without being derailed by conscious incompetence, here are four techniques to help you cultivate resilience:

Use Visualisation

This idea makes some people groan but if you haven’t tried it, it’s worth giving it a go. The brain is getting trained for actual performance during visualisation, which primes it for success.

Guang Yue’s study proves this point. An exercise psychologist from Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Ohio, Yue compared people who went to the gym with people who carried out virtual workouts in their heads. 

He found a 30% muscle increase in the group that went to the gym. But the participants who conducted mental exercises on weight training increased muscle strength by almost half as much at 13.5%. This average remained for three months following the mental training!

Visualisation involves imaging yourself already at the unconscious competency stage, using all of your senses to do so. 

In our dance example, that would mean picturing yourself waltzing automatically and allowing yourself to experience what it really feels like in that moment. 

Scan every detail in your mind’s eye – including what you can you see, hear, feel, taste and touch – and enjoy the all-encompassing physical, mental and emotional benefits of being a master at the skill you want to learn. 

Try doing this for five minutes every day and see what difference it makes.

Try Treasure Mapping

This involves creating a physical or digital representation or collage of what you want to achieve, using paper and glue or Pinterest depending on your preference. 

While you might wonder what a Blue Peter-style approach could possibly deliver, it acts as a constant reminder and representation of your goal. 

Done in tandem with visualisation, it also intensifies the effect on your subconscious mind, motivating and encouraging you towards achieving your goal.

Back to ballroom, your treasure map could include pictures of professional dancers and your favourite outfits, or perhaps images that represent how you will feel when you’ve mastered your ambition to dance. 

It might also include pictures of the stage if your wish is to perform, or of the dance gear you’ll wear while you train.

Keep an Achievements Log

It’s easy to ignore the small, incremental improvements you make on the journey from ignorance to competence, particularly if you are focused on the large mountain of work ahead of you. 

But acknowledging and celebrating the small wins is really important because it will help keep you motivated through the tough patches as you recognise and appreciate your progress.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to keep an achievements log. 

Whether you write your small accomplishments on a whiteboard, in a notebook or on your phone, the very act of capturing them forces your brain to recognise the momentum you are building, plus it gives you a concrete reminder to refer back to anytime you are struggling and feel the call to quit.   

A log for learning to waltz might include learning to hear the beat in the music, conquering the first few steps, completing the first section without a mistake, and so on.

So whether you are in the midst of learning something new, or have something on the horizon, remember that conscious incompetence is simply a stage and that with practice and a few navigating techniques you can dance your way past it towards the glitter ball of mastery.