I like thinking about learning, and how it happens. I try and observe my own learning closely, since it’s the only time I can actually be inside someone’s head as learning occurs. Recently I had a couple experiences that reminded me of a state of mind that we, or at least, I, sometimes experience as I’m learning.
This will generally, though not always, happen when I’m first learning something – when everything is new to me. A feeling of being overwhelmed, of it being too much to handle. The brain says, “Overload, overload, nonono!”
This happened most recently as I was putting the “Arranging Greensleeves Project” together. I was using Lightworks to create the music video. Lightworks is a free, and extremely powerful video editor, but it’s not exactly intuitive. I’ve used it before, but not enough that I necessarily retain what I’ve learned from session to session. And this time I was attempting my most ambitious project to date – and feeling overwhelmed.
Then later on, as I was working on my website redesign, store software, and paypal (so I could sell the PDF and mp3 of Greensleeves) I also felt overwhelmed. That feeling of so many things that I don’t know.
Learning happens most easily when you almost know what it is that you’re trying to learn – when all the surrounding bits are well known, and you have a large comfort zone. This is why, for example, most software has similar conventions (in Windows ctrl-S is save, File gets you a list of options that include Save and Open, a right-click often displays context sensitive information, etc.)
By using a familiar framework, the software designer can vastly reduce the burden of learning required for use – you’re presented with a bunch of stuff you know, and just a few things that you have to learn.
By contrast, when you’re thrown into a completely alien environment, finding anything to hook onto can seem impossible, and learning can seem overwhelming.
And then what can happen is our mind just rejects the possibility of learning, and “shuts off” instead. When explaining some mathematical concept to someone, or having it explained to you, I’ll bet you’ve seen their eyes glaze over and you know that you’ve lost them – they’re not even trying to understand what you’re saying (and I’m sure we’ve all felt this).
I believe Daniel Kahneman talks about this in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”, though I can’t remember exactly what he had to say. (The book’s worth reading, anyway).
Of course, learning an instrument is a prime example of something that can be overwhelming, especially if this is your first instrument – you’re learning not only how to play this instrument, but how to play music, and all its underlying concepts – wow!
And this can happen at any point – it’s easiest to feel overwhelmed when first learning an instrument, but it can also happen when learning a particularly challenging looking piece or, for example, working with an orchestra for the first time, etc.
The good news is, in all my experiences of being overwhelmed, the feeling is much worse than the reality! When I’m feeling overwhelmed my brain seems to be telling me that there’s no way I’ll be able to learn all this, and even if I can, it will require an enormous amount of work.
And yet, when I fight through that, when I ignore what my brain is telling me and just keep trying to learn and get better at whatever it is – whether it’s learning the violin, programming a website, or editing a video, it turns out (without fail!) that it’s not actually that bad.
Sure, it require works – time and mindful application. But before you know it, a few things, and then many things start to make sense. More and more “hooks” of knowledge surrounding areas that are still a little fuzzy.
So when you find yourself feeling mentally overwhelmed by the idea of learning/mastering something – acknowledge it, and then ignore it! Just keep on trying your best to learn whatever it is you’re learning, and don’t waste energy on this feeling of being overwhelmed. In fact, you can use it as a marker – just around the corner is a state of competence, and this feeling of being overwhelmed is actually a way of letting you know you’re almost there…