How to find usefulness in past frustrating learning

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Can we really consider most of our learning moments as positive experiences?

I used to associate “learning” to “school”; when, in fact, learning is a process that accompanies us all our life.

Whatever is the skill or knowledge we are getting the hands on, the process is accompanied by emotions. An expanded emotional specter on optimal experiences (Csikszentmihaliy’s Theory of Flow) counts eight states of mind: anxiety, worry, apathy, boredom, relaxation, control, the nominal: Flow, and arousal.

The earliest and most known principle of the theory assumes that, when going through an experience, there is a correlation between our level of competences and the difficulty of the task. From this relation we can access one of the three states:

  • Flow: it is the optimal experience, when the challenge is adequate to our skills.
  • Boredom: when our skills are too high, we don’t feel stimulated by the task.
  • Frustration (= anxiety ± worry): when the task is too complex for us.

We all experience anxiety. It is a natural response to potential danger, as old as the world. Anxiety is the first emotion we may link to stress, going along with fear. Yet, it can be a powerful source to drive our learning.

When anxiety is helpful

Two studies from Løvoll and Vittersø (2012) disputes that anxiety pulls out the need to upskill. Not only that, but it is easier to learn when we experience frustrations, because a state of balance between skills and challenges could make us stall. That means: if we do not feel the right stimuli, balance is eventually boring.

Yet, there is anxiety and anxiety. Having a purpose and intrinsic motivators when we begin new learning makes us more willing to go through the discomforts we usually experience. For example, when we don’t understand something; when we don’t see the logic; or when it seems we aren’t made for learning what we are trying to. Otherwise, we will disregard the learning as useless, the skill as unachievable.

The key here is to find a purpose in what we learn. Why are we moving out of our comfort zone? What we wish to accomplish from the learning? What will it give us? And even more importantly, how we can give back? Thousands possibilities open up here.

Looking back at high school…

When we were in school, we were forced to learn stuff we did not see useful. Why studying geography? Why maths? What dead languages like Latin have to do with our present, anyways?

But in truth, you can find a purpose in all we have learnt, even retroactively. Here some personal example:

  • Geography = Cultural Growth. taught me that the world does not end where my town ends. It taught me about cultural diversity. Ultimately it made me curious to move away, and pushed me to learn new languages.
  • Mathematics = Analytical Mindset. It is essential for critical thinking, for business. It is my least enjoyed subject up to university. Yet, I found its purpose in data analysis and to better understand the world by statistical sampling. Now I even enjoy it.
  • Old Latin = Great when traveling. If we consider the extension once the Roman Empire had, its footprint is still palpable today in all Europe, through many inscriptions found in monuments, churches, statues and so on. It helps me acquiring context. (Plus, you can quote classic authors knowing what you are saying!)

These where three of the subject I enjoyed less in high school. I’ve found their purpose at one point in life. They suddenly became useful, practical, and when going back to these teachings.

My guess is that if we look back at how meaningless something might have seemed, and how can be but to use now, we achieve a slightly more open mindset. And with that, we are more encouraged to learn, we can dive deep on what is more useful, specializing where we need, without being blocked by the initial frustration.

What is a learning that frustrated you so much, but you found enjoyable later on?

Published by Andrea Paviglianiti

I practice coaching, I love reading, and I work as a data scientist. I also recharge my batteries with meditation, martial arts, and video games. I perform career and skills coaching – thus I define myself as a “cognitive” coach: I help people improve their learning experience to succeed where they want. My method is based on behavioral analysis, psychology of learning, philosophy of dialogue, and classic literature. I write about how to get better at learning, the best books I read, and my personal philosophy of coaching. And I will not lie to you – I can get verbose at times! I’d be happy if you stick around and read more of what I have to share!

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