Wednesday, April 24, 2019

How To Not Learn New Skills

A while back, I did a blog post about things people say they're going to do, but never actually accomplish. Among those listed items were learning new skills, such as playing an instrument or acquiring another language. But why, you might ask, do we plan to learn the piano, or how to say "I have no idea how to stop procrastinating" in Spanish, only to never follow through on our plans? Well, let's dig deeper into that dilemma, shall we?

To begin, we'll shine the spotlight on this child, probably around ten years old, in fourth or fifth grade. A weekly class was offered for learning an instrument. It seemed like a cool idea, so she decided to go. The teacher there showed them the different instruments they could choose from, all things like clarinets or flutes. It wasn't really wind instruments she was interested in learning to play, but whatever. She chose a clarinet, and then lessons began.
In the first place, this girl wasn't always the best self-starter. And I'm still not. I could give you at least twenty examples of this, but we don't have time, unless you want to read a 10,000 word blog post. Anyway, we were supposed to practice at home, and then come to our class. So basically, most of it was on us. The teacher told us a few things and gave us assignments, but we had the class once a week, so mainly it was reading the book and practicing with it.

'Spongebob Squarepants' scene- Squidward plays clarinet with other squids

So what did I do in this class? I came, struggled because I didn't know how to play, and then I went home and didn't practice. The other kids obviously made more effort than me, because when the class performed a song, others were playing and I was just like, "Uh..." I had no idea what to do, and the teacher was frustrated because I showed up every week having made no progress.
Really. I barely practiced, and when I did, it was because a family member was sitting there with the book trying to walk me through it. I learned very little, whether it what fingering created what note, or reading sheet music. Between not learning, and the teacher always exasperated, I finally stopped attending. When it was time for music, the other kids left, and I stayed with the rest of my class because I didn't want to go.

Fast forward five years, to my freshman year of high school. I hadn't signed up for Spanish, but I was put into that class. I thought the idea of speaking another language was kind of cool, but wasn't especially enthusiastic about taking the course. You had to memorize all these words, which meant studying. In case you wondered how much I studied for classes, I look back on my high school years and am amazed I got decent history grades.
Because I didn't study or practice the language much, my Spanish grade was mediocre. And because I wasn't very interested in the work, I didn't put enough effort into it. I didn't learn a tremendous amount, and with lack of use, I've forgotten most of it. Even if budget cuts hadn't ended the class halfway through the year, I doubt I would have progressed that much, even to the most basic conversational level.

Meme- When you study for three minutes. 'I must rest now. The reading has made me weary.'

So what are the consistent factors in these examples? Motivation, interest, and effort, it seems. If you lack the motivation to do it, you don't put in the time and cognitive resources to learn much. And you're less likely to put in the effort if you lack interest.
But it's not just interest. I thought about learning the piano keyboard, but when I had the keyboard and book on learning to play, I didn't do anything with them. Sometimes it's the idea we're interested in, not the reality.
Come to think of it, motivation is sometimes a more successful formula than interest. I didn't like algebra, but because it was a required class rather than an elective, I was motivated to learn it so I wasn't stuck in high school for the rest of my life. But if you're going to actually retain the information, you need interest in it. I've forgotten a lot of things because it didn't hold priority in my brain. If you lack interest, or don't try to use it, you might lose it.

Meme- Man looking at woman labeled 'Procrastination' while girlfriend labeled 'Task I should do' is offended and ignored.
Ironically, I made this meme while procrastinating on this blog post.

Going deeper, the reason why we get things like this done, or why we don't, is our mindset. I had to memorize this for history class, so I did. I didn't sign up for Spanish class, and wanted to learn something other than the clarinet, so I wasn't as interested in them. Because we lack enthusiasm, we don't put in as much effort, or it gets stuffed into our short-term memory, doomed to soon rot away.
Along with that, people often fear failure, because learning a new skill can be difficult. They can sometimes become discouraged because they know it will take a long time to master. As a result, they have the mindset that they might not succeed at all, or that it will take 'too much work'. It's that lack of confidence, or feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of what they've taken on, that causes many people to lose momentum, or never gain it at all.

Meme- The look I give when I'm completely overwhelmed.

There's lots of resources online for learning another language, including websites with free lessons. Some instruments are fairly cheap, and you can easily buy a how-to book or find online tutorials for it. But I haven't used that opportunity, both from lack of motivation and initiative, and because I'm afraid that I'll make the move to do it, and then not follow through. I've already blown off the clarinet, piano keyboard, and Spanish language. I'd hate to stand up yet another date at the prom.
Our past shortcomings can negatively influence our likelihood of trying again. We already blew it with this and that, so why should the next time be different? I'm no good at commitment, and I don't want to burn you too, language/instrument/etc. I'm so sorry... (continues to string shiny idea along, flirt with it, and tell it how pretty it is, but never decide to go steady)

So how do we overcome this problem? (I asked while not overcoming my own problem.) Perhaps the key is to change our way of thinking. If we're going to undertake something major, we need to think positively. If we think, "Meh, I don't really want to", lack confidence in ourselves, or doubt we can find initiative to keep at it, we're approaching it with low expectations, which sometimes turns out to be self-fulfilled prophecy. We don't think we can do it, so it doesn't happen.
What we really need is to overcome our fear of messing up, our worries that it won't work out, and stop making excuses for not doing it. Easier said than done, though. Otherwise, I might be accomplishing things instead of just talking about it. The prospect of trying new things is frightening, of course, but sometimes we simply have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, out of our routine, outside of our bubble of reality. We have to attempt what we haven't done before, try to incorporate something new into our lives. After all, you never know until you try.

With that said, I'll leave you with this video.

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