Today’s guest contributor is my friend, Jen Louden. Jen is a personal growth pioneer who helped launch the self-care movement with her first book The Woman’s Comfort Book. She’s also the co-creator, with Fortune 100 executive trainer Michele Lisenbury Christensen, of the popular course TeachNow for people who need more confidence, more income, and more power in their teaching – no matter the subject.
I loved so many aspects of the ontological coaching training I took back in 2001 from Newfield Network, starting with the word “ontological” (it makes me feel good and nerdy). It was the perfect intersection for me between my Buddhist influences and my screenwriting background, with the focus on story and the question of “what is reality?”
One concept in particular rocked my world: the adversaries of learning. The idea is simple and profound: Somewhere along the way, we learned to not learn, and the ways we learned to not learn are mostly invisible to us. This invisibility allows them to block us from what we most want.
Learning equals thriving, equals well-being. Learning – as entrepreneurs and parents, as bloggers and teachers – is the key to success. By being open and flexible to constant learning, we can’t help but grow and thrive.
Which is why the idea of something we can’t even see getting in the way of that learning is chilling.
Well, I’m here to bring your adversaries of learning into the light. Once you read these, you’ll know which ones are yours. And then you can start practicing simple ways to unravel their influence over your beautiful growth.
Gentle note: be nice to yourself as you read this list. Don’t add the “second arrow” of self-flagellation.
The Nine Adversaries and their Antidotes
1 - I Know That
Nickname: The Smarty-Pants Adversary. The more degrees and certificates you have, the easier it is to fall under the thrall of “nothing new here” and “been there, done that.” Signs of this adversary are:
- • always skimming when you read or listen
- • a restless feeling of boredom
- • dismissing or downplaying new developments in your areas of interest
- • rarely taking a class or having an experience in something totally new or startling.
Antidote: Laugh at the absurdity that you can possibly know everything about anything - life, if lived in the present, will teach you in every single beating moment. To open to that, breathe in and out through your belly. Imagine your eyes are the eyes of an eight-year-old – innocent and curious. Interrupt the thought “I know” with “Thank god I know nothing.” And then go do something so out of your comfort zone – take a circus class, perform at a poetry slam, work in a classroom – and keep saying while you do it, “I know nothing.”
2 - I Can’t
This is one of my favorites, absorbed when I had an undiagnosed learning disability and everybody just thought I was stupid. This adversary is sneaky as all get-out because it makes you feel safe. It agrees with your reptilian brain that the best idea is to not even try. Language clues that you’re stuck with this adversary include “That never works for me,” “I tried that 20 years ago,” “My sister is good at stuff like that,” “I’m too old (young, out-of-shape, dumb, etc.)” and then the killer: ”I tried.”
Antidote: Facts are your friend here. What is the proof – proof that you could show me – that you can’t? Write this proof down. Then show it someone else who is a can-do kind of person and ask “Do you believe this is true? Is this a real fact that I can’t do ______?” You still might not want to do _____ but each time you bust “I can’t,” you will start to see it for what it is: an adversary of your learning and full-on living. And then you get to choose.
3 - The Bubble
Pioneering online organizer Eli Pariser wrote an important book, “The Filter Bubble,” that makes a very compelling case for how internet search tools are screening the juicy big world from us, returning only the search results the engines’s algorithms think we want to see. It has huge implications, especially when you add in big corporations data mining.
But first, we bubble ourselves! Without realizing it, we cocoon ourselves into increasingly isolated micro-niches of information. We do so because we are overwhelmed, but we have to be aware of this adversary of learning because it can cause cognitive blindness. In a nutshell: We don’t know what we don’t know.
Antidote: Next time you want to put off work, instead of scanning the same old stuff, survey your input. What blogs, websites, news feeds, newsletters, newspapers, magazines, authors do you always turn to? Why them? Because they reinforce your world view? Because they rill you up about the things you already rilled up about? Because they startle you with fresh perspective that makes you think? What voices, regions, countries, outlooks are never in your mix? What can you add that is so out of your bubble you resist encountering it? Of course you can’t add them all – your brain would explode – but add one or two.
And read Eli’s book.
4 - Learning Is a Luxury I Can’t Afford
This one shows up most often as “I don’t have time.” We allow ourselves to be victims of our lives.
Antidote: Make a list – this could take several days – of all that you want to learn now. No priority, small bits like “how to add video to my blog” to big things like “Mandarin.” Live with the list, add to it, read over it, then cross off the “shoulds” – you must cross off the shoulds. After a week or so of list-marinating, ask yourself, “What is the juiciest thing I want to learn right now?” Let desire guide you back into the learning stream. Whatever you do, don’t leave any shoulds and don’t start with what you have to do – pleasure is the way because it makes it easier to find the time, which dissipates this adversary.
5 - But Do you Know Who I Am?
Nick-name: “Believe your bio at your own peril.” Oh god, the times I’ve been caught here! It makes me blush just thinking about it. Self-importance, significance, name-dropping, “my friend so-and-so,” extreme seriousness, and a puffed out chest are good indicators that perhaps you aren’t truly open to learning these days because look who you are. Note: you might get all puffy in one area of your life – say work or parenting because you have a lot of identity invested there – and be very humble and open in other areas. That can make it a tad harder to see how this adversary is blocking you.
Antidote: Other than getting the stuffing kicked out of your ego by some embarrassing incident, I would recommend a lot of toilet cleaning. One of my favorite stories is from Jungian analyst and author Robert Johnson who, in talking about getting all “aren’t I amazing?” after a successful lecture, would go home and clean his toilets. That would bring him right back home. Tend to something humbling, in other words. The antidote for number 1 is also helpful.
6 - Man Hands
Seinfeld made it hip to trivialize what makes us uncomfortable. This adversary of learning shows up as wise cracks, putting yourself or others down, or always filling silence with small talk.
Antidote: Zip your lips. Seriously simple, and you may be surprised how hard. Learning requires discomfort, silence, time and sometimes, reverence, to seed. Squirm if you must, but remain silent and while you’re at it, silence the voices in your head by inhaling for the count of four and exhaling to the count of six.
7 - Sanctity
I nicknamed this “one too many reflexive namastes.” Also known as putting teachers, authors, leaders - anybody – up on a pedestal. This blocks your learning because it makes it difficult to imagine yourself as an equal which means some portion of the learning adventure is off limits to you. It’s a subtler version of “I can’t.”
Antidote: I like to remind myself everybody poops but since that grosses some people out, learn about when your pedestal dweller was a beginner. He or she might not have a memoir or biography to read but there will be articles about their early work. Scroll back to the beginning of their blog archives, or interview them about their formation and early mistakes. You can also just start saying to yourself, “There by the grace of God go I.” You can take it either way.
8 - Forgetting the Body
Oh how we love to think learning only takes place in our heads. Oh how wrong we are. Oh how figuring stuff out only gets us so far.
Antidote: When I teach, this is my favorite adversary to banish. And it feels good. Try this: next time you find yourself all pent up and stuck about anything, shift your body into the opposite of what you are currently doing. DO NOT THINK ABOUT THIS; just move. Then take whatever you just spontaneously did – this is called trusting your somatic intelligence, by the by – and exaggerate it. Add a little sound if you are really ready for change. Rinse and repeat and know you will probably resist. So what?
Additional antidote: Calm your nervous system with full inhales and longer exhales. So much learning never gets a chance because we are in flight or fight mode.
9 - Information Gluttony
This is not the same as information overload. Instead, it’s the process of confusing gaining more information with actual learning. Research paralysis is another name. Planted in front of Google, unable to stop clicking on yet another link. Learning and knowing takes action over time.
Antidote: Do. You can read about how to start a business all day but until you open the doors and sell something, you haven’t learned much. The same is true for falling in love, raising a child, brewing beer, you name it. The antidote is simple: action.
It is my sincere hope this menu of adversaries has shone a light-hearted beam into the places where you have learned to stop learning. Please remember that our culture, our well-meaning parents, and our own attempts to keep ourselves safe and loved helped these adversaries take root. But they don’t need to stick around anymore. Awareness and self-kindness, plus a willingness to look stupid, will open you up like a good book on a long summer afternoon.
Here’s to learning!
Jennifer Louden is a best-selling author of six books, teacher, and curious soul who is learning how to savor and serve the world these days. She teaches an on-line program with Michele Lisenbury Christensen called Teach Now (enrolling now).
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