BooksPeopleReflectionNovember 5, 20137Why We Think Learning Is Boring

To succeed in disruptive times, re-connect with your 4-year-old self....

I’ve been think­ing a good deal late­ly about learn­ing: how we learn, espe­cial­ly as adults; why the abil­i­ty to learn well and eas­i­ly is so impor­tant now; what gets in the way of our learning.

And one thing I’m notic­ing is that most peo­ple have a rather lim­it­ed and not-very-pos­i­tive view of the word “learn­ing.”  For instance, I’ve noticed that if I put “learn­ing” in the title of a post at Forbes, I get — at best — a cou­ple of hun­dred page views. If I then go back and change the title, remov­ing “learn­ing” and sub­sti­tut­ing a phrase like “How to.…” or “5 Ways You Can.…”, the page views jump dramatically.

So I’ve start­ed ask­ing peo­ple what they think of when I say “learn­ing.” Gen­er­al­ly among the first few words out of their mouths:  “school,” “bor­ing,” “class­room,” and “teach­ers.”  As a result, I’ve come to believe that for many (most?) of us, our asso­ci­a­tions with learn­ing have been deeply taint­ed by our ear­ly, neg­a­tive asso­ci­a­tions with school­ing:  our mem­o­ries of being scrunched into uncom­fort­able desks with a bunch of oth­er bored 9‑year-olds while some bor­ing grown-up drones on about some­thing that’s infi­nite­ly less inter­est­ing than what­ev­er is going on out­side the win­dows of our too-warm, over-crowd­ed classroom.

And it’s real­ly unfor­tu­nate, because — in the words of Arie De Geus — “The abil­i­ty to learn faster than your com­peti­tors may be the only sus­tain­able com­pet­i­tive advan­tage.”  I’ve come to believe that this is true not only orga­ni­za­tion­al­ly, but per­son­al­ly as well.  In this high­ly dis­rup­tive, fast-chang­ing era, peo­ple who mas­ter the art of learn­ing new things quick­ly and well have a tremen­dous advan­tage. Emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies? Changed busi­ness mod­els? Dif­fer­ent employ­ee expec­ta­tions? New ways of work­ing glob­al­ly? Cul­tur­al mash-ups?

All doable if you’re a kick-ass learner.

To find out how to be a tru­ly excel­lent learn­er, go back before you got stuck into school, and think about how you were as a lit­tle kid.  Since lots of peo­ple don’t have much mem­o­ry of them­selves at this age, I’ll remind you.  Lit­tle kids are dri­ven to learn.  They want, deeply, to be like the big­ger kids and grown-ups they see all around them. It’s aspi­ra­tion in the sim­plest, most direct sense. It’s also a pow­er­ful sur­vival mech­a­nism — from the begin­nings of human­i­ty until a few hun­dred years ago, the chil­dren who most quick­ly became skill­ful, con­tribut­ing mem­bers of the tribe were most like­ly to live and reproduce.

And the impulse that focus­es this aspi­ra­tion to learn, that cat­alyzes real change in under­stand­ing, is curios­i­ty. Any­one who has ever been around a 4‑year-old has expe­ri­enced this first­hand:  Why?  How did that hap­pen? Does that always hap­pen? Is that a good thing? What if I did that? Can I do it? Why not? It can be exhaust­ing to the adults involved, but it’s a remark­ably effec­tive way to fig­ure out the world, how it works, and one’s place in it. Curios­i­ty is the impulse to under­stand. It’s part of that sur­vival mech­a­nism — under­stand­ing our envi­ron­ment as deeply as pos­si­ble is key, not only to not get­ting killed by some aspect of that envi­ron­ment, but also to using what’s avail­able in that envi­ron­ment to increase the like­li­hood of our safe­ty, com­fort and health.

There are two oth­er things that kids have (at least when they’re lit­tle) that we tend to lose as adults: they’re will­ing to admit when they don’t know some­thing, and they don’t care about mak­ing mis­takes.  We call those learn­ing capa­bil­i­ties neu­tral self-aware­ness and will­ing­ness to be bad first.

Learn­ing lan­guage is a great exam­ple: “What’s that?” my grand­daugh­ter asked me last sum­mer, point­ing at a radish I’d just pulled from the gar­den. “It’s a radish,” I replied, hand­ing it to her. “Rabish,”  she said with sat­is­fac­tion, inspect­ing it. “Radish,” I repeat­ed.  But she could­n’t quite get that com­bi­na­tion of let­ters — and did­n’t real­ly care. Her focus was on pure acqui­si­tion of under­stand­ing, and she was­n’t at all embar­rassed about her dif­fi­cul­ty with the pro­nun­ci­a­tion, as an adult would have been.

I’m deeply con­vinced that if we, as adults, can re-con­nect with those four child­hood capa­bil­i­ties — aspi­ra­tion, neu­tral self-aware­ness, end­less curios­i­ty and will­ing­ness to be bad first — we will be far more suc­cess­ful at nav­i­gat­ing through this ever-chang­ing world.

I’m plan­ning on writ­ing my next book about this whole are­na, so I’d love to hear your sto­ries of how you used any of these four capa­bil­i­ties to get bet­ter at some­thing, to devel­op a com­plete­ly new skill, or to find out about some­thing you did­n’t know.  I’ll also be writ­ing about this at Forbes, so if the top­ic inter­ests you, please join us over there as well.

And as always, thank you for reading…it inspires me to get as clear as I can about what I observe and expe­ri­ence, so I can share it with you as use­ful­ly as possible. 


  • Randy

    March 2, 2014 at 6:01 pm

    I love your book ‘Grow­ing Great Employ­ees’ and I real­ly liked this post. I’ve gone through kind of an ‘unlearn­ing’ expe­ri­ence myself since grad­u­at­ing from col­lege. I had to relearn how to use my curios­i­ty and pas­sions to dig deep into a sub­ject because it is fun. I got used to being giv­en what I need­ed to know in school, and not know­ing how to do much at all when all was said and done. I equat­ed learn­ing with mem­o­riza­tion and rep­e­ti­tion. Now I see it as a quest of dis­cov­ery. My biggest hur­dles are my own self-doubts. I hear myself say­ing ‘Nobody cares, you don’t know any­thing, oth­er peo­ple will think you’re delu­sion­al, etc..’ I just have to repeat to myself, ‘It mat­ters to me and I enjoy it and that is good enough.’ It takes some unlearn­ing to believe that I don’t need a degree or a cer­tifi­cate to know some­thing, and that I don’t need a PHD to have cred­i­bil­i­ty. It takes unlearn­ing to learn some­thing because I want to, and I don’t need a spe­cif­ic out­come or result because of it. Learn­ing is its own reward, we are wired for it.


  • Nemo

    February 24, 2016 at 2:54 am

    There is a sub­stan­tial prob­lem as a grown up and the old­er you get: chil­dren are giv­en lee­way, we go easy on them. How­ev­er, the old­er you get espe­cial­ly after being sex­u­al­ly mature oth­ers will see you as com­pe­ti­tion in the gene pool. Going back and being a kid is not an option, or it can be, but a very painful one, with many failed attempts at get­ting the infor­ma­tion you neef or want.. Admit­ting you don’t know some­thing is shame­full. Ask­ing ques­tions is shame­full and you are looked down upon. Why would you want to improve dome­body else is the men­tal­i­ty of the nor­mal­ized soci­ety today. We dont think as a whole, we think as sin­gle enti­ties, who com­pete to pass on their own genes in the gene pool. Ego­ism rules our soci­ety in the fight for sur­vival. Hence, eas­i­er said than done. In the­o­ry com­mu­nism sounds nice, but the human fac­tor is the hook.


    • Erika Andersen

      April 25, 2016 at 9:40 am

      Hmmm. What you’re say­ing is not my expe­ri­ence at all. And there’s some inter­est­ing research over the past decade that shows “trib­al” behav­ior is a sur­vival mech­a­nism for humans, and seems to be wired into us.


  • amber

    April 29, 2018 at 12:07 pm

    learn­ing is BORING real­ly BORING but I still do it


    • Erika Andersen

      April 30, 2018 at 6:21 pm

      Hmmm…would love to hear why you find it boring.


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