How to deal with the emotional rollercoaster of learning new things

What is your experience of learning?

homer simpsonIs it something that seems to happen automatically and effortlessly, (like, in my case, with reading, writing and languages), or something fearsome, hard, and with an unacceptably high risk of failure, (in my case, with maths and anything that required systematically memorising and reproducing facts)?

Is learning full of “Aha!” moments for you? Or full of “D’oh!” moments?

Personally, I didn’t really learn how to learn until I was in my 30’s, when I passed a financial strategy exam, against all odds.

How I Faced My Learning Fears


I had chosen to do Financial Strategy in my MBA course  in the spirit of proving something to myself, and not because of any professional interest or expertise. I struggled from the start with the maths, the financial statements, the options and futures, the puts and stops, the company valuation, the corporate governance, with all of it, basically. The maths alone made my brain freeze like the dreaded Windows blue screen whenever I looked at a page of equations.

Learning the impossible

I passed (and, btw, I was the only one in my tutor group who passed) for two main reasons:

  1. In addition to the course materials, I read novels and memoirs, anything I could get my hands on to do with the world of finance, (like Nick Leeson’s memoir Rogue Trader, Liar’s Poker, Bonfire of the Vanities and Barbarians at the Gate), thereby providing myself with plenty of context for all the concepts I had to learn.
  2. By accidentally hypnotising myself into a state of extreme relaxation when it came to revising for and taking the exam. I did this by deciding there was no way on earth I was going to pass, but I would go through the motions of revising for, and taking the exam and treat this as a trial run.

Unlike any other exam I’d taken for this MBA, (or every other exam I’d ever taken), I did not spend the night before the exam revising, and I did not arrive at the exam feeling exhausted and faint with anxiety. I wrote so much during the exam I had to ask for extra answer sheets. I was genuinely astonished when I got my result a couple of months later. I remember thinking there was NOTHING I couldn’t learn now. NO-THING. Chinese? String theory? Bring it on.

Universal experiences of learning

robert doisneau

Since then I have discovered and tried a lot of tricks, techniques and strategies for facilitating learning (see below), and have become addicted to the rush of endorphins you get just from learning facts. (Why didn’t anyone tell me?)

However, there are many aspects of my earlier experience that are universal, which I’ve seen from working on change management and training programmes as a consultant. I’m convinced that the emotional challenges of learning new things are either underrated or ignored, especially in our adult lives, every time we’re faced with new processes and technologies, or any situation or tool that requires regular practice or exposure to really learn how to deal with it.

Playing the string game – learning in action

string game

To see this in action, I often get my trainees to play the string game. To play this you have to “manacle” yourself with a piece of string, and then link yourself to a partner by threading your “chain” through theirs before they manacle their other wrist. The objective is to separate from your partner without untying or breaking the string, and without slipping the “cuffs” off your wrist. The point of the exercise is to get people to think about problem-solving with other people.

The exercise usually goes like this:

  1. twisty metal puzzleYou start by confidently trying to twist yourselves free of each other, as if you were one of those twisty metal puzzles that you have to separate. You persist with this strategy even when it’s clearly not working because it’s sort of fun.
  2. After a few minutes of this, frustration sets in: from total confidence that you can solve the puzzle immediately, you decide it’s impossible. I, the facilitator, insist it’s possible. You twist and turn some more.
  3. After a while I ask you to stop and define the problem. You usually describe it as like trying to separate two links in a chain. This is when I say: “But IS it TWO links?”
  4. You work out that the solution might have something to do with the loops around your wrists. Eventually you manage to free yourselves from each other. EUREKA! I ask you to tie yourselves together again and solve the problem again.
  5. 50% of the time you are unable do it again, and just manage to make the problem worse, twisting your strings together rather than freeing yourselves.
  6. If you’re doing this activity with lots of other people, none of the others are ever interested in watching you, the pair that’s solved the problem, do it again. Also, you, the successful pair, might actively try to hide what you’re doing from the others.

Here are my anthropological observations from playing the string game at least 100 times, about how we react to challenges that require us to learn new things:

  1. Our initial assessment of a new challenge is always wrong. At first we see exactly what the problem is and how to solve it; then, if at first we don’t succeed, we decide it’s impossible and give up.
  2. Once we’ve figured out how to do something, it doesn’t mean we can do it again. Also, if we do it wrong, we risk making the situation worse.
  3. If we don’t use the solution regularly we forget it. (Faced with exactly the same game six months later, we will have no recollection of what the solution is).
  4. Calling something a game does not make it fun.

And if we’re trying to get lots of people to learn new things together, like in a company change programme, we need to take into account the following:

  1. Report-CardWe don’t want to learn from each other. We’d rather work on our own rather than see if anyone else has a solution. In fact, in some cultures, asking for help is a sign of weakness and could even be considered copying or cheating. So don’t assume learning will happen by some kind of osmosis or “trickle down”, (a.k.a. “cascading knowledge”).
  2. In uncertain times, knowledge is power. We hoard our solutions and don’t want to share, in spite of what David Attenborough says about us mammals: that our competitive advantage derives from our ability to teach and learn from each other.
  3. Image result for rollercoaster terrifiedLearning new things is an emotional rollercoaster: our mood ranges from confidence to frustration, from optimism to hopelessness, from triumph to helplessness, from energy to lethargy. Personally, I enjoyed rollercoasters until I was about 30, and now they make me feel like throwing up. You can’t just assume everyone will engage with the challenges of learning new things.

How can we stay focussed on what we need to learn to deal with new challenges? How do we maintain energy and enthusiasm when faced with new situations, tools, processes and technologies?

My favourite approach for group and individual problem-solving and learning is a creative problem-solving methodology called Synectics, originally designed in the 1950’s in the Arthur D. Little Invention Design Unit, which promotes playful, energising, efficient and effective problem-definition, knowledge-sharing, brainstorming, idea-development, decision-making and action-planning.

And finally, although I have never played video or role-playing games, I recommend watching Jane McGonigal’s TED-talk, “Gaming for a better world”. She talks about the unique problem-solving attitudes and skills gamers develop, and says that to solve the world’s problems, we should all spend at least 10,000 hours playing online role-playing games.

This might sound extreme, but we can certainly borrow the rules, tactics and strategies from games for our change programmes to make sure that:

  • the highs more than compensate for the lows
  • we always believe there are solutions
  • we remember to team up and pool resources with others
  • we’re always motivated to level-up.
  • we’re motivated by noble visions – as well as short-term objectives
  • we have the opportunity to experience “epic wins”

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