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5 Myths About Learning

When you're learning anything, you can see a certain distance between who you are now and who you want to become. It's a path that you must walk if you ever want to reach the state of "being good". It's very much like a journey, and even if you've never thought about it, you probably have certain expectations about how your journey should look.

Imagine you're walking on a rocky path, climbing a hill. It's a long way and you're getting tired. How are you feeling? It depends on what you've expected from this journey. If you wanted an easy, relaxing, short walk, then you'll feel terrible—you'll probably complain the whole way. But if you wanted a challenge, if you wanted to get tired, then it will be an amazing experience for you.

As you can see, the same journey may feel completely different depending on your expectations. The same applies to learning. So let's see what misconceptions you may have about learning that could be making your journey seem harder than it needs to be.

Myth 1: We Share the Same Path

No matter what you're trying to learn, there are many people who started doing the same thing long, long ago. It may be discouraging to compare yourself to them—especially if you started relatively late. It's even worse to see people who started later than you, and who seem to be making much greater progress. You may think that it's pointless to even try—you'll never catch up with these people, because the distance between you is too great.

But if you think about it, is there really any distance between you? Do you think they ever were in your current place? Sure, they probably had your skills in this area at one point, but your skills are not separate from the rest of you, or from your life.

Imagine two artists. Mark is 17, and he wants to draw for a living. He spends all his free time practicing, and he has a lot of free time, because at this point in his life his main responsibility is school. Mark also has supportive parents, who, despite not being rich, buy him whatever he needs for this hobby.

Jane is 27. She always dreamed of being an artist, but her parents discouraged her and she eventually stopped practicing. She now works an office job and has a husband and a baby daughter. Recently she started to draw again, in the little free time she gets. She's afraid to show her work publicly, because she feels she should be much better at this age.

Imagine you get to see artworks by both Mark and Jane. Mark's looks quite professional, and Jane's is like a child's scribble. What do you think: which of these artists is better?

You can call Mark better than Jane only if you ignore the privilege that he's had in his life

Our learning journey isn't something separate from our lives. It's a part of life. And because our lives are not the same, the journeys are separate as well. There's no way to accurately compare things as different as the lives of two different people. And yet we try to do this, unintentionally, when we call someone "better than us", or when we berate ourselves for being "too slow".

We often imagine learning as a competition, as a race. We see someone passing us, or staying behind us, but the truth is, it doesn't tell us anything about how good we are.

Why? Because everyone starts the race at a different spot, and everyone's track has a different length! Some people have the privilege of living in a supportive environment, or having a lot of free time or money to spend on expensive courses and tools. Luck is a huge factor in learning, too—like meeting a mentor who motivates us to follow our passion, or getting sick and being forced to focus on other things for a long while.

If you can't tell what position each runner had at the beginning, how can you tell which one is the fastest?

Imagine you're riding a bicycle, as fast as you can. And a car passes you. Does it mean that they're better than you? Not really, because you're doing two different things. And I don't want to say that if others seem to be better than you, it's because they all have some advantage. I just want you to be aware that you can't tell who's riding a bicycle, who's driving a car, and who has to walk, just by seeing their position at the moment. And comparing two different situations would tell you nothing about who's better!

We don't walk together. Each of us has their own path to walk, their own obstacles and their own opportunities. Other learners are not your rivals that you're supposed to catch up to. Your path is your own, and the only person you can compare yourself to in order to see how far you've gone is yourself from the past.

It's pointless to compare yourself to people walking other paths

Myth 2: You Know How Fast You Should Learn

There's something called Dunning-Kruger effect, and it means the less you know about something, the more you think you know. Why? It's pretty simple—you can't be aware you don't know X, if you're not aware X exists.

When applied to the concept of a learning journey, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains a very common issue: the frustration of slow learning. You may think it's absurd—you're learning so slowly that you have plenty of reasons to get upset! But ask yourself: how do you know how fast you should be learning? How do you know it should be easier than it is?

The answer is, you don't know. Even if other people learn the same thing faster, it doesn't mean you are able to do it fast, let alone that you should do it fast. In many cases, you don't even have anyone to compare yourself to, and yet you set yourself a time goal without any clue how long it will really take. Just because something looks easy, it doesn't mean it is. In fact, if you have a hard time doing this, it's clear proof that it's not easy at all!

It might have seemed easier at first, but if it turns out to be hard, blame your expectations, not your level of talent.

So instead of getting angry at yourself for not meeting made-up expectations, accept the fact that you miscalculated the effort required for this task. Adjust your pace to what the journey requires, and don't get upset when you stumble upon obstacles—they are exactly where they should be. If you didn't expect them, you were just mistaken. Be humble enough to admit that!

Myth 3: There's One Right Way to Learn Something

There are thousands of ways to do something wrong, and only a few to do something right. So, obviously, you don't want to waste time walking the "wrong paths" and searching for the right way. You'd love to follow a plan describing your every step, right up to the goal.

The problem is... there's no "right way" in any learning journey. For a long time, I thought that if I only learned enough about learning, I would manage to put together a plan with exact steps, with no going back, just steady progress. But it's not possible. Why?

Most skills consist of sub-skills. It often looks like this: to understand sub-skill-B, you need to learn sub-skill-A. But to understand A, you need to learn B. It's impossible to learn A perfectly, and then move on to focus completely on B. It's also impossible to learn B without knowing anything about A. You have to learn A a little, use this incomplete knowledge to start learning about B, and then come back with this knowledge to understand A better, and only then learn B as a whole.

Confused? And I still made it simpler than it really is! Because the truth is, various skills are connected in ways you wouldn't expect. Sometimes you may be bad at one thing, give up, start learning a different one, and when you come back to the former, you may discover that it got much easier.

Sometimes you need to go back to move forward

What does it really mean for you? That there's no point in searching for the "right way". No matter what you do, at one point you'll have to stop, turn around, and revise something you've learned earlier to move on faster. And it will keep happening, but it's not a bad thing at all—in a learning journey, you're moving forward even if you go backwards!

I used to think that you shouldn't move forward until you get good at one thing. But now I think it's not really the case: if you learn ten things a little, and then return to the first one, it will be much easier to tackle, with your experience of doing these other nine things. It's likely that without this experience you wouldn't even know what it means to be good at that one thing, let alone learn it!

Your steps may be linear, but the journey has more than one dimension!

So don't be afraid to "waste time" learning something that doesn't look connected to what you want to do. Time spent learning is never wasted! Here on Tuts+ we have a variety of written tutorials and video courses on all kinds of topics. If you feel stuck on one, switch your direction to something else—you never know how it will affect your skills!

Myth 4: When You Reach Your Goal, You'll Become Good

When you start learning, you have a certain goal in mind. The vision of reaching this goal is what motivates you during the whole journey. You imagine how good it will feel, and it makes you keep going, keep practicing. But months pass by, maybe years, and you're still not any closer to it. How is it possible? Didn't you work hard enough? Or maybe it's simply a futile task?

Of course, there's a chance you're doing something wrong, but if you notice any difference between your current and past state, you must be moving forward. You're just not seeing it. Why? It's very likely that the goal you set for yourself right at the beginning has changed without you noticing it. As you moved forward, it moved forward as well!

What happened here is that when you were setting your goal originally, you knew next to nothing about the area you were planning to learn. You just wanted to be good at it, but "good" was defined by a whole group of people better than you. And when you started getting better, you also gained enough knowledge to notice the differences between various levels of what you previously perceived as "good".

So let's say you wanted to be as good as people A, B, and C. They all seemed to be on the same level to a layman like you. And as you became as good as A, you noticed the huge gulf between them and B or C. So you haven't really become good—better, yes, but not good, because now "good " means something else than it used to. And once you become as good as B, you've guessed it—the definition of "good" will move again to the level of C.

And it never ends! The more you know, the more nuances you notice, the better you get at seeing mistakes, and the more visible they become for you. The only way to reach your goal is to understand that the journey is the only goal. You'll never be "good" in your own eyes, but you can be better than you were yesterday. And you can, with some effort, ask yourself from the past what they think of you. You'll be surprised to hear their opinion!

Your past successes can easily get invisible for you, making you feel as bad as you felt before them

Myth 5: Improvement Is Linear

The whole point of learning is to get better at something, right? No wonder then that you feel like a failure when your progress is slow, or when you seem to be actually moving backwards. Or when with time things start to get harder, rather than easier.

But who told you that it's going to get easier with time? It would be true if you were learning a single thing, for example jumping a rope, but in most cases the skill you're learning is much more complex than that. It consists of many sub-skills, and some of them are not linked at all—so learning one doesn't make you better at the other.

That's why you shouldn't expect that your journey will get easier and more pleasant with time. If you stumble on an obstacle, it doesn't mean you're a failure, just because you have walked such a long way and you think you should jump over it with no problems. If you've never met this obstacle before, it's no wonder you have problems with moving on. The number of obstacles you have jumped over in the past doesn't have anything to do with this new one.

Your journey will never be linear. Sometimes you'll go slower, sometimes you'll go faster, sometimes you'll have to go a step back to find the way. But in the end, as long as you're moving, you'll always move forwards in the end, even if it doesn't feel like this at the moment.

If you need proof, just walk a part of the path you walked long ago. You'll see that it's like a walk in the park, even though it felt so terribly hard at one point. One day, it will be the same with the part you're walking right now—if you just keep moving!

Even if you feel you're getting worse, you may still be better than in the past

Conclusion

Learning can be extremely satisfying, but it can also make you doubt yourself at times. I believe that you can get more of the former and less of the latter just by eliminating misconceptions about learning from your mind.

Every journey can be pleasant or horrible, just by comparing it to different expectations. A change of expectations about learning makes the process of gaining new skills much more rewarding!

So what are you going to start learning today?


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