Don't be too smart when you're trying to learn
How quickly do you learn? Are you one of those people who picks things up with ease? Feel slightly smugly in training courses? Don’t need anything explaining twice?
Well here’s a way of thinking about learning that might give you pause for thought.
One way of categorising different types of learning is to distinguish between ‘Quick Insight’ and ‘Gradual Improvement’.
- Quick insight learning is when you pick things up through learning a new theory or by putting ideas together to come up with one of those ‘Aha’ moments.
- Gradual improvement is where skills and knowledge are acquired more slowly through practice. We all use both but people often have an aptitude, and a preference, for one over the other.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, bright people often prefer quick insight learning and, when the distinction is explained to them, often feel good about themselves for being quick learners. But here’s where pride comes before a fall. Because only certain things can be learnt in this way.
When you can’t do it all in your head
Quick insight learning is fantastic for learning theory, picking up systems, working out what’s going on in a situation. Anything, in fact, that you can do entirely in your head. But as soon as you introduce a physical element into whatever you’re trying to learn, quick insight is of limited use. Art, crafts, sport, music, cooking, dancing – many of the things which make life worthwhile – all require a hefty dollop of gradual improvement learning. Even if you are a dedicated workaholic, who shuns anything as frivolous as a hobby, work related skills, such as public speaking, require practice.
I meet a lot of quick insight learners who – once they’ve swiftly absorbed the concept – say they don’t have the patience for gradual improvement learning. In my experience, this masks a deeper truth. People who think of themselves as smart struggle to tolerate the discomfort of being inept.
Missing out the uncomfortable bit
You may have come across the four stages of learning, which we move through when we learn:
- Unconscious incompetence – I don’t even know that I don’t know that
- Conscious incompetence – I know I can’t do that
- Conscious competence – I can do this but I really have to think about it
- Unconscious competence – I don’t even have to think about this anymore
Quick insight learning allows people to jump straight from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to at least a degree of ‘conscious competence’. You don’t know something, then you learn about it, assimilate it into your mental model of the world and you’re good to go. Say you discover a new way of categorising job applicants. You grasp the idea, apply it to your pool of applicants and a whole new way of thinking about potential candidates opens up. I’ve seen people retrospectively beat themselves up for not already knowing the thing they just learned – ‘How could I have been so ignorant/naïve? Why did I not see this before?’ – but they do this from the security of knowing that they’ve got it now. Their view of themselves as capable remains intact.
Acknowledging your incompetence
Compare that with sitting at a piano wanting to play Rachmaninoff yet struggling to master Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Now you really have to face your own incompetence and that can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings, from frustration to embarrassment and even shame. And that’s when many people give up. I’ve met a lot of successful, capable people who admit that they avoid even trying things that they don’t think they’ll be any good at. I sometimes wonder whether this is why the stereotypical geek is often bad at sport – used to picking things up quickly and progressing from there, they don’t put in the hours of practice that it takes to master a physical skill, especially if it didn’t come naturally to them in the first place.
Two ways of seeing progress
Of course, gradual improvement plays a part in developing skills which you may acquire through quick insight. Let’s say you’re a fairly experienced psychometric test user and you go on a course to learn about a new assessment. It’s a good course, you grasp all the key concepts, you fit the new information into some mental model you have about assessment and you feel confident to use the new test. If you carry on using it and then look back after a year or so, you might realise that your interpretation and feedback is much more nuanced than it was when you first learnt it because of all the practice you’ve had. But generally you only recognise that in hindsight. At any given moment, you probably feel reasonably confident that you know what you’re doing.
With skills that require gradual improvement learning it’s the other way around. You have to start knowing what you’re aiming for, which may seem almost unattainable, and be satisfied with the small steps you take along the way. Mastering Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has to become a cause for celebration not proof that you still can’t play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto.
Hubris and humility
Gradual improvement learning teaches people a lot about learning in general and about patience and humility. It can also give fast learners far greater respect for their steadier, slower colleagues, who tolerate the discomfort of being incompetent and have the perseverance to keep going where they might give up. So if you are a smart, fast-learner and you really want to stretch yourself, I wholeheartedly recommend taking up something you can only develop through practice – cake decorating, flamenco dancing, playing the trombone, doesn’t really matter what. You may be surprised what you learn about yourself in the process.