ChangeReflectionUncategorizedMarch 2, 20234The Long Wild Ride of Real Learning

Pon­gas Par­que Natural

When Be Bad First came out in 2016, I often not­ed in inter­views (and in the book itself) my belief that being able to learn new skills and new ways of oper­at­ing was the key skill for suc­cess in this 21st century.

I still think that. And by the time my next book, Change From the Inside Out, came out in 2021, I had under­stood the pro­found two-way con­nec­tion between learn­ing and change: almost all exter­nal change requires learn­ing, and real learn­ing requires inter­nal change.

Wait — What?

If that idea of the learn­ing-change cycle does­n’t quite land in your brain, let me offer an exam­ple. In ear­ly 2016, I decid­ed I need­ed a real learn­ing chal­lenge — part­ly to prac­tice what I was preach­ing in Be Bad First, and part­ly because I’m com­mit­ted to con­tin­u­al­ly chal­leng­ing myself. So, I decid­ed to learn Span­ish. I already knew a lit­tle of the lan­guage (like a lot of peo­ple, I took class­es in junior high), so I was­n’t start­ing from zero…I fig­ured that would make it eas­i­er. And it just seemed like hav­ing the abil­i­ty to speak Span­ish would give me more flex­i­bil­i­ty to inter­act and oper­ate in this mod­ern world.

I dis­cov­ered a lan­guage learn­ing app called Duolin­go, (I high­ly rec­om­mend it if you’re try­ing to learn a lan­guage), and also found video con­tent for learn­ers from a vari­ety of sources. Final­ly, I asked my col­league Vanes­sa Defournier, who is flu­ent in a num­ber of lan­guages, if she would be will­ing to have con­ver­sa­tions with me in Span­ish. These con­ver­sa­tions chal­lenged me more than any oth­er aspect of my ear­ly learn­ing jour­ney. I had to con­tin­u­al­ly man­age my self-talk toward Of course I’m bad at this, I’m just get­ting start­ed — and I know I can improve and away from Oh my god, I’m such an idiot, and she’ll think I’m lame.

Next Level of Learning Difficulty — and Change

The next year my dear hus­band Patrick sug­gest­ed that we vaca­tion some­where in the Span­ish-speak­ing world, so I would have a chance to prac­tice. After some research we set­tled on Asturias, a province in the north of Spain. We both fell in love with the place and the peo­ple (and the food!) — and it was a great place to prac­tice, because almost no one there speaks Eng­lish. (They have tourists — but the vast major­i­ty are from oth­er parts of Spain.)

So, for the first time, I had to speak Span­ish — if I want­ed to get direc­tions, to buy any­thing, to order food, I did­n’t have a choice. It was a change that required me to tur­bo-charge my learn­ing; and for the first time, my lan­guage learn­ing path was requir­ing me to change crit­i­cal aspects of how I was think­ing and behav­ing. There was the two-way cycle: an exter­nal change (hav­ing to speak anoth­er lan­guage to oper­ate day-to-day) required learn­ing (improv­ing my Span­ish); the learn­ing required inter­nal change (think­ing, lis­ten­ing and respond­ing in new and untest­ed ways).

Ramping Up the Change/Learning Challenge

As I not­ed, we both loved Asturias right away, and so we went back every year (except for the 2020 pan­dem­ic year), and when we returned at the end of 2021, we looked at each oth­er and said “We want to live here part-time.” And that ramped up both the change and the learn­ing dra­mat­i­cal­ly. Now I was going to have to speak Span­ish well enough to find and buy an apart­ment; open a bank account; get util­i­ties, inter­net and phone ser­vice; con­tract for any need­ed renovations…etc., etc. And that was just the nuts-and-bolts stuff. We also want­ed to under­stand the local and nation­al cul­ture, make friends, under­stand ref­er­ences and jokes, be — ulti­mate­ly — sup­port­ive and help­ful mem­bers of the community.

So much learn­ing!  So many changes! (And at this point, Patrick decid­ed he real­ly need­ed to learn Span­ish as well, so he start­ed his own Duolin­go journey.)

Fast for­ward: now in March of 2023, we have an apart­ment that we love and some won­der­ful new friends; we seem to be nav­i­gat­ing all the Spanish/Asturian poli­cies and pro­ce­dures and fig­ur­ing out how to do fun stuff as well (con­certs, yoga class­es, muse­ums and his­tor­i­cal sights, vis­it­ing new areas and try­ing new restaurants).

But my learn­ing jour­ney con­tin­ues — and is in some ways even more chal­leng­ing. Every day I find sub­tle and not so sub­tle dif­fer­ences in lan­guage and cul­ture that I have to learn and incor­po­rate, and I’m con­tin­u­al­ly run­ning up against my own dis­com­fort and neg­a­tive self-talk about learn­ing and change. Here are the main things I’m learn­ing abut learning -

Being Good at Learning/Change

Be kind to your­self: Almost every time I make a mis­take in con­ver­sa­tion with some­one (or even while doing Duolin­go, which is still my go-to), my default is still to feel frustrated/embarrassed. I’m learn­ing to say kinder, more sup­port­ive things to myself instead — Well, it was most­ly right — at least they under­stood you vs. Why can’t I get that? What’s wrong with me? That hope­ful self-talk is both more accu­rate and more moti­vat­ing — and it feels a lot bet­ter, too.

Pick your shots: When you take on a big learn­ing chal­lenge, it’s impor­tant to chunk it into pieces and pri­or­i­tize the pieces so you don’t get overwhelmed.For instance, in Spain every­one uses the infor­mal third per­son plur­al (vosotros) of verbs, while almost all Latin Amer­i­can speak­ers use the for­mal (ust­edes). I only know the Latin Amer­i­can approach, and I’ve decid­ed that learn­ing the “vosotros” con­ju­ga­tion isn’t a pri­or­i­ty while I’m still work­ing on vocab­u­lary and get­ting my verb tens­es right. It does­n’t get in the way of peo­ple under­stand­ing me — I’ll learn it later.

Be help-able: We will be for­ev­er grate­ful to our real estate agent and now friend, Anto­nio. He found our love­ly apart­ment and held our hands (almost lit­er­al­ly) through the buy­ing process; he has con­nect­ed us with great con­trac­tors; he sup­port­ed us through the weird­ly com­plex and time-con­sum­ing process of get­ting the pow­er turned on. He answers my ques­tions, is patient with my mis­takes, helps us under­stand the cul­ture, is end­less­ly fun­ny and kind. In most learn­ing jour­neys, you can find peo­ple who both want to help and are able to help — let them.  Oth­er­wise, you’ll be mak­ing it much hard­er on your­self than it needs to be.

Cel­e­brate the wins: I may not have under­stood every word, and some­times I had to ask peo­ple to repeat things, but — by god — we bought an apart­ment in Span­ish!  We’ve gone out with new friends and had 2‑hour con­ver­sa­tions and every­body had fun and most­ly under­stood each oth­er — I even got the jokes! Rec­og­niz­ing and giv­ing your­self props for your progress when you’re in the mid­dle of a long learn­ing jour­ney is essen­tial to your men­tal health.

Real­ize there is no fin­ish line: When you’re learn­ing some­thing big and impor­tant to you — speak­ing a new lan­guage; being a bet­ter leader; oper­at­ing well in a new com­pa­ny, indus­try or job; address­ing cli­mate change — it’s crit­i­cal to under­stand that there will nev­er a be a point when you’re done learn­ing. I was talk­ing to a col­league the oth­er day who’s going to be on my pod­cast, and she’s very ner­vous about it because she’s not a native Eng­lish speak­er. From my per­spec­tive, her Eng­lish is per­fect — oth­er than her charm­ing French accent, I would con­sid­er her 100% flu­ent.  But she feels like she’s still learn­ing, and isn’t com­plete­ly con­fi­dent about her abil­i­ty to express her­self in this alter­na­tive lan­guage. When she said that, I real­ized that when (I hope) my Span­ish gets as good as her Eng­lish is — I’ll still feel like I have a lot to learn!  Fram­ing this fact as a gift (I get to keep learn­ing and grow­ing) vs. a prob­lem (What? I have to keep work­ing on this?) will make your life in learn­ing very much more pleasant.


So — all good luck on your learn­ing chal­lenges, what­ev­er they may be, and as they say in Spain, Nun­ca es tarde para apren­der. It’s nev­er too late to learn…


  • Saheed

    August 18, 2023 at 4:08 am

    Great work


  • Ruben

    February 20, 2024 at 10:12 pm



    • Erika Andersen

      February 21, 2024 at 2:42 am

      Thank you — so glad it res­onat­ed for you!



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