This is a post script to On Learning – and failing to learn – languages and other hard things.
On the surface, “On Learning” is about language learning, but it applies to the process of learning any difficult subject.
By “difficult”, I mean something you can’t pick up on the fly and that requires, by necessity, many long weeks, months and sometimes even years, where you’re struggling to attain a comfortable level of proficiency.
The fact of life is that you’re not born knowing all the things you need to know to succeed and many of the things you need to learn are not easy pickings. They take a significant investment of time, energy, and even emotion.
Emotion is the piece of the puzzle I want to talk about here…
One thing that’s obvious when you observe language learners, or attempt learning a foreign language yourself, is that many people psyche themselves out from the very beginning. You can see them tense up, get exasperated and give up.
What’s the problem?
They didn’t feel this way about language learning when they were toddlers when the task was in many ways much harder.
(Don’t believe the a-scientific nonsense that the infant brain is better suited to learning and that people later in life face a huge handicap when it comes to learning language or any other topic.
Infants start out with no landmarks at all and have absolutely nothing to hang their new language learning on. They have no existing vocabulary or even sense of language they can apply to their learning. Every new word is not just a word but a brand new concept. Everything is new to them. Focused adults can and do run rings around infants in the language learning department.)
So why is language learning – and other difficult subjects – so hard emotionally on certain learners?
After all, what’s the big deal?
You survived fine not knowing a given subject, so any additional bit of knowledge you accumulate should be like found money.
Yet people scrunch up their faces and suffer when confronted with “tough” subjects.
I believe the answer to the problem can be found in the concept of status.
Status is one of those obvious things like oxygen we never think of until our supply gets interrupted. Even then, we rarely attribute “loss of status” as the source of much of the discomfort and pain we encounter in our lives.
For example, when a romantic partner dumps you, a huge portion of the pain you feel is not the loss of the person, it’s the loss of status. In the process of being dumped you lose the status of a sexy, intelligent, attractive person (in your own mind where it counts the most) and, overnight, feel not only unwanted but actively unwanted. Ouch. It hurts just to write that.
The same thing applies to losing a job or losing a business or failing massively and publicly.
Why is this such a big deal?
Because as tribal creatures our very survival is connected to our status. Tribe members who are not wanted are driven away and for countless hundreds of thousands of years, being driven away from the support and resources of the group was, in a very real sense, a kind of death sentence.
The fact that we don’t live in circumstances like this anymore doesn’t change our core wiring. Status is something we desperately protect at all costs throughout our day, every day.
Here’s how status and the idea of the loss of status (“status anxiety”) applies to language learning, or any other difficult thing to learn.
Previous to trying to learn a new language, you feel pretty good about your language skills. If you need to say something out it comes pretty effortlessly.
All that changes and changes radically when you start using your imperfect language skills in real interactions with real people (which as I pointed out in On Learning – and failing to learn – languages and other hard things is the only way to learn to use a language.)
In these circumstances, you go from Joe Cool to the Village Idiot in two second flat and by necessity, if you plan to master a language, you have to stay in this state for a long, long time.
Most people find this experience uncomfortable, if not downright painful.
What are the odds that you’re going to stick with something and come back to it day after day for weeks and months at a time if it’s painful for you?
So what’s a learner to do?
There’s one tried and true method, it works and it takes all the pain way: Embrace the role of Fool.
A”Fool” is not someone who is stupid. A Fool is simply someone who doesn’t know what others take for granted.
For example, he doesn’t know how to say “butter” or “over there” or any number of things that for others are incredibly basic.
Smart people of good will (and others aren’t worth a second’s consideration) will reach out to help you when you’re obviously serious about learning something. They’ll even enjoy the process.
After all, the other group that people share the fine points of language with are babies and who doesn’t like the experience of sharing new words with a baby?
So instead of carrying around the very heavy and burdensome identify of “I’m the guy who doesn’t know what everyone else knows and therefore I’m a low status character” be the guy who says:
“I don’t know and I know I don’t know. I’m fine with that and I’m going to figure it out and have fun, big fun, with the process.”
The reluctance to ask questions flows directly from status anxiety .
Many people are afraid to ask questions which is fatal to the learning process.
They’re afraid they’ll look stupid (a loss of status), that they will reveal that they are not as informed as they’d like to be seen as being (a loss of status), or that they will hold up the rest of the class if they’re in a class setting (and thus suffer a loss of status as they become ‘the guy who doesn’t get it.’)
There are people and teachers who discourage questions. These are not the kind of people to worry about. They’re idiots.
While it’s sometimes true that a teacher in a classroom situation has to move things along, real teachers welcome clarifying questions and if they can’t handle them in the moment will invite you to ask your questions later, at a more opportune time.
Also, remember that in a classroom setting, odds are that if you’re making a real effort to understand something and don’t get it, there are probably other people, perhaps a lot of other people, in the class, who don’t get it too, but are just too embarrassed (unwilling to lose status) to ask the question.
The only solution I know to this problem of status anxiety and learning is this:
a) Become conscious of what is mostly an unconscious dynamic (fear of loss of status as a block to doing what you need to do to learn) and
b) Throw away the status loss fear and adopt a new status: Be the guy who asks questions because he doesn’t know anything about the subject at hand, but sincerely wants to learn, is considerate of the time and energy of the people he’s asking, and demonstrates real delight, appreciation, and gratitude for everything that’s shared with him.
It’s no exaggeration to say that I can trace millions of dollars in income to embracing this cast of mind.
And I still constantly put myself in situations where I am, by far, the dumbest guy in class.
Just this weekend, I took a seminar taught in Spanish on a cutting edge topic in functional neurophysiology. Why Spanish? Because the guy doing the breakthrough research reports his findings in Spanish.
I don’t speak Spanish very well (I’m probably a 1.5 on a scale of 10, 10 being the highest) and my knowledge of anatomy is definitely below 1 and probably closer to zero than one.
So how did I handle this situation which for many would be fraught with frustration and anxiety?
I grasped what I could grasp and let go what I couldn’t realizing I can always take a future pass at it. I probably only grasped about 5% of what was going on, but I did do three smart things:
1. I didn’t worry about it
2. I stuck with it and did not withdraw, shut down or give up
3. I made in a point to keep my eyes wide open for key concepts and made sure that if nothing else I grasped the big picture.
Was it easy?
There was more than one time I said to myself “Never again. This is just too hard.”
But now that it’s over, I’ve got a two day Spanish language immersion under my belt (which I can already feel the benefits of) and I’m conversant with the big principles of a brand new breakthrough in medicine that has the potential to help a lot of people.
And I owe it all to being a Fool.
Two additional resources to help drive these idea home:
Book: “Status Anxiety” by Alain De Botton. Fantastic book.
Movie: “Down by Law” by writer and director Jim Jarmush. Pay particular attention to the Robert Benigni character and his over- the-top, but charmingly enthusiastic approach to learning English. Be that guy. It’s OK.
– Ken McCarthy
P.S. For over 25 years I’ve been sharing the simple but powerful things that matter in business with my clients.
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