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Learning to Learn

Learning to Learn, illustration

Credit: Andrij Borys Associates / Shutterstock

Why is it, when we need to learn something new that will benefit our work or home life, we often find ourselves blocked by seemingly invisible forces? When learning fails we miss out on important projects, promotions, and opportunities. We end up suffering and falling short of our objectives. Somehow, for many of us, our natural capacity to learn seemed to deteriorate over time, especially in areas that we care about the most.

Educators and business leaders have used the term "learning to learn" to name a missing skill that would reverse the deterioration. The business literature is filled with tips and buzz-words about this skill: "learn from mistakes," "fail fast and often," "learn faster with technology," "be curious," "collaborate," and "take down silos."7,8 But despite these wise aphorisms, something holds us back. Something within us resists—and even gives up on—learning. What is it?


Jeffrey Johnson

Thank you for this thought-provoking article.

Cognitive psychology also provides insight into how our ability to learn new things changes over time. A well-known example is the ability to learn languages, which is high when we are young children and (at least according to some researchers) declines as we age.

Robert Sapolsky, a Stanford biologist and MacArther Awardee, wrote an article entitled "Open Season", in which he ponders the mystery of people becoming set in their ways in a variety of domains. Here is a link to the article: The article was later republished in Sapolsky's book Monkey Luv and other Essays on Our Lives as Animals.

-- Jeff Johnson

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