To Learn, Get Used to (Temporary) Incompetence

Very few people succeed time and time again by sticking to what they know. In order to thrive in today’s business world, we have to let go of the idea that being an adult means being an expert at something. Instead, we need to learn how to become a novice over and over again—to be comfortable with being bad at things on the way to getting good at them.

Even though we say we want to acquire new knowledge, many of us start showing signs of resistance as soon as those new ideas begin poking holes in what we already know. As soon as we feel clumsy and inexpert at something, many of us tend to shut down and resist learning.

We generally don’t like having to be bad at something initially, even if we’ll be better at it later. For many adults, being a novice feels like going backward. We’re used to proficiency. We secretly hope we’ve forever left behind that feeling of incompetence that we face when confronted with new knowledge. We want to be grownups who have it all together.

But that’s the unavoidable starting point for learning anything at just about any age. Starting from scratch to learn something brand new can be confusing, demoralizing, even downright scary. The obvious question is how to overcome that discomfort and plow ahead anyway.

Not so surprisingly, it starts by accepting that not having everything perfectly mapped out is okay—that trial and error is an inevitable part of breaking new ground. What may be less obvious is how this differs from simply barreling through failures. It isn’t necessarily true that it takes a hundred bad ideas to come up with a good one; it isn’t even that failure makes you stronger or more resilient all the time.

More to the point, learning new things simply means being okay with slowness, awkwardness, and a stubborn lack of clarity. It means having to ask embarrassing questions—to be bad first, as a cognitive “down payment” on being better later. And like the learning process itself, that acceptance comes only with practice.

Summing-up: Success in today’s world requires the ability to acquire new knowledge and skills quickly and continuously—in spite of our mixed feelings about being a novice.

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