A Kick To the Head: Addressing Barriers to Learning

“‘ ‘Learning how to think’ really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.”

– David Foster Wallace, novelist

What did you learn in grade-school? What about high school? What did you take away from college — college college or community college? How to count, how to read, how to get along (or not) with your peers, how to diagram a sentence, rewire a house, or render a 3-D model of a chemical or molecular chain, the ins and out of accounting, sports law or event-planning…

In all that time, how did your education train you to think?


Educational institutions are also social institutions. Even as you learn your ABC’s and 1-2-3’s, you’re also absorbing all sorts of things not directly listed in the lesson plan. Notions of cooperation and competition, following the rules, meeting standards, getting along with other people, playing fair….we’re taught how to move and live in society — but we are rarely taught how to think. (Read the quote again, please.)

We memorize. We echo facts and figures. We follow, absorb, and more often than not, regurgitate the knowledge we absorb come exam-season.

Generally when you’re bored, it’s in one ear and out the other, unless you’re cramming. Then it’s Red Bull and reading yourself blind.

When you’re passionate about something, however, it’s all fascinating.

Ever met anyone with an encyclopedic knowledge about something — baseball, fungi, dinosaurs, manga, French films, MST3K, something — who would spout reams of stats, obscure facts and trivia at the slightest encouragement?

That’s one aspect of learning: passion.

But passion unleashed can be a wildfire — pretty, deadly, and leaves nothing but ashes. Look at Romeo and Juliet. Heathcliff and Catherine. Tristan and Iseult.

What else is there?


Direction. It’s not enough to burn –dully, sullenly, brightly, in fitful sparks and cinders, what have you– what are we expending ourselves for?

And to learn, you also have to be open. To be open you have to relax the filters. You still need to have a No-BS filter in place…but you have to nurture clarity, openness, and the willingness to accept discomfort that comes from adapting to change.

You also have to accept that you don’t know everything, and will never know everything. That’s humility.

In that uncertainty, you take your strength in your agency, that you can rise to the challenge presented by the unknown, and have the potential to become better than you were before, which develops resiliency. You learn from everything you live through: the mistakes that marked you, and the ones you survive.

When you employ a stubborn refusal to recognize change — much less accept that it is happening, and in ways you can’t control– you’re ignoring one of the driving principles of life. ‘And even as things change, things also come back.’

Situations repeat themselves in one form or another until a new insight is appreciated and incorporated. If what you’re doing doesn’t work anymore, stop doing it. Try something else.


DANGER! Paying attention pays, period. What other factors make it harder to learn?

  • Procrastination – Putting things off increases the pressure to the point that you won’t be able to think clearly. While some personalities thrive on the stimulation that comes from that kind of pressure, we poor stressed-out folk would do better to do steady plodding gains.
  • Data-overload – When you don’t have priority filtering in place, in your eyes every bit of interesting data can have tremendous potential to solve the problem in your head…and you scramble to get everything just-so, drowning in information.
  • Perfectionism – While you chase that imaginary carrot, doors of opportunity are closing unnoticed on you.
  • Self-doubt – What if you can’t get it because you’re such a loser? Why try for it at all when you know you won’t win?
  • Feeling overwhelmed and confused – A side-effect of the first two factors. See also ‘besieged’ or ‘beleaguered.’ When they’re coming at you from all sides, bro, instinct tells you to hunker down, cover your head, and go ostrich.
  • Lack of clarity – If you don’t know what you want, how will you know to get it, or if you’ve got it already? It’s hard to see things clearly when you’re in a dark place and you refuse to turn on the lights.
  • Self-discipline issues – This is called sticking-to-it. If you don’t stick to the course, you’re all over the map and you don’t get anywhere worth going to. If you allow yourself — and yes, I meant it that way, you do allow yourself — to go off-course, it’s on you. The question is, who’ll pay for that leniency?
  • Lack of focus – If you don’t know what to do to get what you want, how will you go about it? You’ll sleepwalk through your decisions.
  • Distractions – Ooh, look, a chicken!
  • Poor time management – What are you supposed to be doing right now?

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