Why is learning is hard? Because you learn when it’s hard


Most learning isn’t learning – it’s assimilation. True learning means changing your mind.

Assimilation means that new facts are made to fit our existing worldview and mental models. It feels nice, like “aha!”, I was right.

Real learning is accommodation – changing one’s own mental models to “accommodate” new facts. Creating a new perspective in which both what we know and the new facts fit in. This probably also means abandoning some habitual beliefs.

Every “fact” we know is in fact a construct. Every fact has a half-life: at some point it will be proved wrong. The question is when? Some facts stand the test of time, and remain true over long periods of time (think, the earth goes around the sun rather than the other way around), some others get debunked in our lifetime (Ulcers are caused by stress – nope, they’re caused by a bacteria).

The problem is that accommodation, the very process of true learning, feels awful. As the mind makes new connection, it feels more like malaise and ugh! even depression rather than the joyous “aha!” of the light bulb turning on (this does happen, but when it all comes together, finally, after digesting for a long time).

Learning feels like an ache, a rub you can’t fix.

And, yes, being really creative is likely to make you more prone to depression and other mental troubles.

On the other hand, we largely control our mental constructs. One simple trick is simply to focus more on positives (as well as allowing negatives to spur creativity). Imagine the events of your life as picking stones out of a back: say good things are black stones, bad things are white stones. As you make two heaps of stones on the desk in front of you it’s fascinating to see the latitude we have in actually picking good events and bad events.

And that mostly good things happen when we’ve figured out the smart thing to do or the right way to be: we’ve learned.

True learning, however, comes from facing where we’re wrong (ugh!) rather than cherrypicking where we’re right (ahh!), and then connecting the dots in a new way:


Which is why the lean system is such as powerful learning framework:

  1. Customer complaint: no, the customer is not being a jerk – what did we miss?
  2. Rework: yes, we should have known better – what did we miss?
  3. Reduce lead-time: what happens if we go faster – ouch, why can’t this be easier?
  4. Leveling: shouldn’t we stop batching this? Ah, this is where the system doesn’t let you!
  5. Standard work: do we really know the sequence of steps of this activity? Ouch, fail!
  6. Kaizen: what can we improve right now, right away?
  7. Misconceptions: what wrong assumptions do any of these learning activities reveal?

Which is also why lean is not for everybody – some people simply can’t cope – and why it needs to remain cheerful and positive – otherwise it’s simply too hard.

Yes, we can learn anything. But we also need to cultivate the discipline to learn anything, and face the loneliness of the long distance learning, which is struggling with the discomfort of real learning, and teaching our mind to accept it until we get to the prize: new, fresh insight.

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