The Learned Something New Blues

Side note – I’m trying to write more articles for readers (instead of or in addition to helping writers get better at their craft).  Normally, the advice that writers get on “what to blog about” is to write about the same thing that you’re researching for your current works in progress.

Right now, I’m working on a story about a cat who travels dreams.  So what do I write about?  Cats?  Dreams?

I sat down this morning and went, “Well, what do people who read my stories actually find interesting?  They like cats and dreams, sure, but is that what I’m really writing about?  Is those the kinds of articles that I’m passionate about reading?”


If you look over at my Facebook feed, what you’ll see me reposting are:

  • Posts about people discovering that they were wrong about something.
  • Posts that dig deeper into a commonly held narrative, to find something not commonly repeated.
  • Psychology and mental health stuff.
  • Pop-culture jokes, memes, and puns, but usually the second-generation ones that are a little meta.
  • Gothy art.
  • Snark.

I like the idea of writing about the things I actually like, not the things I research so I can write about the things that I acutally like.  I think I’ll go with that kind of thing as my “for the reader” posts.  It’s an experiment 🙂

Today, I’d like to talk about learning new things.  It’s hard.

I have had this discussion before; often, when I say that “learning new things is hard,” there will be that one person who bravely makes the stand that learning new things is not hard.  That person will often lash out at me personally, either within the same conversation or (and this has happened more than once) on via some other post or even a private message to tell me what a terrible person I am.

There is a psychological term for learning new things being hard; it’s called “cognitive dissonance.”  The definition is actually is that cognitive dissonance is when a person holds two contradictory beliefs, values, or emotions.  But one of those beliefs is held before the other one.  Ergo, cognitive dissonance is the discomfort of learning something new.

So, to repeat my previous statement: learning new things is hard.

I don’t believe pretending otherwise makes learning any easier, although doing so literally is one of the techniques for reducing cognitive dissonance: pretending that the new belief doesn’t actually come in conflict with the others you hold.  I have a suspicion that the people who lash out at me for saying “learning new things is hard” are using this technique.  “Learning things is not so hard!  Therefore I don’t have anything to fear!  How dare you tell anyone otherwise!  It’s discouraging!”

Well, okay. That’s one coping technique.

The rest of us cope with the difficulty of learning new things by:

  • Avoiding learning new things.
  • Overestimating how difficult learning new things will be (if something is impossible or takes too long, you don’t even need to try!).
  • Learning new things “at any cost,” and then not being prepared for the actual cost.
  • Start learning the new thing, then quitting as soon as learning triggers difficulty or cognitive dissonance.
  • Becoming angry at the new thing, mocking it, devaluing it, “I didn’t want to do that anyway, it was stupid.”

We have a lot of mental tricks to help us avoid learning anything truly new.

What’s a healthier, more effective way forward?  It’s going to vary from person to person, obviously, but here are some strategies:

  • Set priorities.  How important is learning to you in general?  How important is it to you that particular day?
  • Admit that learning something truly new is hard on every level, and treat yourself as though you are having a bout of physical illness and/or depression.  The mind can get melodramatic about this.
  • Limit your focus to one truly new thing at a time.
  • Accept that other elements of your life that require willpower to accomplish will slide on especially difficult learning days.
  • Acknowledge negative self-talk (“I suck!!!”), and remind yourself that it’s likely part of how hard learning really is.
  • Acknowledge arrogant self-talk (“This is stupid!”), and remind yourself that it’s a defense mechanism against feeling like you suck.
  • Be ready for an especially bad negative reaction on days when you get feedback.  Even positive feedback can be shattering.

Learning something truly new at some level involves changing how we think about ourselves, even changing our identity.  If you take a class on learning how to cook like a chef, for example, there’s part of your brain that goes, “I am supposed to be as good as a professional chef.”  That can be painful on days when you screw up a meal; that can also be painful on days when you make the best meal ever and you’re like, “Why am I not as famous as that one TV Chef?  I’m just as good.  Maybe even better.”  If you are a chef, the mental consequences can be even worse–because it’s your livelihood at stake.

There is some good news, though.  Once your identity has recovered from the hit that learning something new delivers, the learning gets easier.  It’s like taking that chef class and telling yourself, “Okay, at first I sucked at this, but then I got better, and now when I screw up, I know how to fix or disguise that.  I’ll know that I’m not perfect, but nobody else will.”

The best thing, I think, is to identify the way in which the new thing is making you question yourself, and address whether you want to change that about yourself–or not.

Do you really want to be a chef?

Yes?  Okay, then.


Sometimes we start on something new, not knowing that it’s going to take us to a place we don’t actually want to go.  (“I don’t care how much better of a chef it would make me, I just don’t care about food costs.”)

Sometimes we just want to obsess over the easy early part of learning something and move on to the next relatively easy thing–sometimes we just want learning to be easy, a kind of distraction from the real stress of the day.  And that’s fine, too.  As the saying goes, “Jack of all trades, master of none–but oftentimes better than master of one.”  It’s no bad thing to know how to make homemade mayo, even if you’re never going to be a professional chef.

Sometimes learning gets to be easy and fun.

But other times it’s hard.  New jobs, new tasks, new expectations, new attitudes.  Admitting that you’re struggling won’t defeat you.  But pretending that it’s either always impossible or always easy–that just might.

The world is madness. Read the latest at the Wonderland Press-Heraldhere!




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