The 9 Adversaries of Learning and Their Antidotes

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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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32 responses

32 responses to “The 9 Adversaries of Learning and Their Antidotes”

  1. Amy Oscar says:

    Wow. Thank you Jonathan for bringing Jen to us today. All I’m gonna say about this is: 4 and 7 and 8. Yikes. I am grateful for this post – especially the very handy ‘antidotes.’ Thanks Jen for calling me out.

  2. Interesting reading as I think back to a community roundtable last night and I heard many of these being stated yet they did not realize the very solutions they were all wanting is in each others grasp by asking – “which of the above am I allowing to prevent me from being a part of the solution?”

    Jonathan this is what we love about you and who you bring out, on and up – it is as if you finger is on the pulse of people’s minds they are not willing to say outloud. Great share with Jen.

  3. Michele that is fascinating. To think about how we might build better communities / processes if we could work with the learning blocks in the moment… you got me thinking!

  4. Oh I savoured this one!

    As a teacher I have tried to differentiate instruction with students, to help them play to their strengths when they learn, to facilitate full mind-body comprehension. I love how these adversaries are the transposition of the other and present specific strategies to address our adversaries. This should be taught to all teachers for themselves and to their students when they address metacognitive learning strategies.

    Love. This. Jen.

    Thank you, as always, for your service to teachers!

  5. Loved the whole post, but this question especially resonates with me: “What is the juiciest thing I want to learn right now?” I used to dream about being a perpetual college student just because it felt SO much juicier (sorry) than work. But then we (I) get stuck in information gluttony and that doesn’t really help anyone. As a teacher myself, I need to remember that many of my students might also be in that same spot.

  6. I had no idea we had so many ways of blocking ourselves from learning. Thanks for calling these out and teaching us how to overcome them. You are a wealth of good information, Jen!

  7. Janet says:

    Ohmygosh, I love that toilet cleaning bit.
    It was interesting to see some of the sneaky ways we keep ourselves from learning something new and out of our little safe bubble. All of this is great stuff to remember, thanks so much for sharing it.

  8. Wow Jen, I loved this. (and thank you Jonathan!) This post is so well-thought out – I am super guilty of 8 and fairly guilty of 1! Numbers 2 and 7 are the ones that break my heart the most when I see them in others. It’s so hard to navigate to a place of freedom when you have on such blinders. Bookmarking this for future reference!

  9. Jeff Bronson says:

    #2 ” I can’t” is so common, and so tragic. Perhaps a person tried once before, or knows someone who did and failed, therefore it’s not worth trying.

    I like your strategy of writing down exactly what factors are limiting you from accomplishing something….what facts.

  10. This stuff fascinates me Jen – especially since you started the post with the word ‘ontological’ and then managed to put Buddhism, story-telling and teaching into the same breath.

    I see my 14 nephew allowing himself to be blocked by these adversaries and it spurs me to action, and yet – if I’m honest – I fall into them myself. Thanks for reminding me to start alert!

  11. I need to go and clean toilets…………..
    Fantastic post – learned a lot about not learning…
    I am going to pass it on to my daughter as well and hope her fiance will read it too…
    Thanks for bringing this fantastic post Jonathan and thank you very much Jenn for writing this.

  12. Jonathan, thank you so much for bring Jen to shine a light on our adversaries.

    Jen, thanks for that gentle warning to caution us (me) against “self-flagellation.” I’m so good at it.

    Two of these adversaries are so familiar.

    For #5 I offer another antidote: kids. Mine are grown now, but they keep me level-headed because although they love me, they are so unimpressed with my accomplishments.

    As for #9–Ouch! Ouch!–I’m off to implement the antidote.


    • oh yes kids do keep you very grounded. my daughter was tiny when i was doing my “biggest” work in the world. i’d come home from a big talk or a TV thing and she could care less. so good for me! 🙂

  13. No. 1 hit me!

    No, I don’t practice No.1. But my friends around me yes. When I recommend them some good reading materials, they will give me answers like, “I know already”.. “This is common sense”.. “All are just the same”..

    I will knock their heads if they told me this. Sometimes I am kidda give up to recommend more reading materials to them.. 😀


  14. Laura says:

    “Everybody poops” Love it! Thank you both for this great post.

  15. Brett Jarman says:

    Brilliant. Sunday morning here in Australia and a perfect read to start the day (gave up on Sunday papers a long time ago).

    I’m pleased to say that the email in my inbox immediately prior to this one arriving from Jonathan was my daily dose of random ‘learn something new every day’ – Now I know. Short and sweet but always interesting and always tells me something I didn’t know (subscribe at

    Finding out what ‘ontology’ means is my second dose for the day (and I haven’t even had breakfast yet). Not sure I could use it in a sentence yet but it’s great to know that our ontological coaching needs are in such good hands. Thank you Jen.

  16. […] Hilary Duff is such an ace role model for new mums. The nine adversaries of learning (and their antidotes!) How to make Gnocchi. How to use shortcuts to type faster on your iPhone.Here’s our Clip of […]

  17. Dharmendra Singh says:

    Great Jonathan, Awesome Article !! . How you always come with something nice to think about ??

  18. Robert Chen says:

    Thanks Jen. I’m an avid learner and have found myself in many of the situations above. Taking the beginner’s mind approach has really helped me to open myself up to new things.

    My issue is wanting to learn too many things and not having the time for it.

    Great article!

  19. […] is a wonderful guest post by Jen Louden at Jonathan Fields site called the Nine Adversaries of Learning and Their Antidotes. I’d highly recommend […]