The first experience of learning is helplessness: Ask anyone who has ever needed to learn a language.
My aunt, who immigrated to France from Vietnam when she was 19, has friends who often marvel at her boldness. “She is fluent in three languages: Vietnamese, Cantonese and French! And she speaks her mind in all three of them!”
What’s missing from their compliments is the hard work she put into learning languages. Their remarks sound as if she was just inherently gifted. Learning a language, for instance, requires you to put yourself out there, face ridicule from those who many not understand your accent or confront those who may scoff at the way you construct your sentences.
Therefore, the quality that ought to be commended whenever one applauds a person for having a certain talent shouldn’t be the talent itself.
What’s of more worth than applause are the ways a person manufactures discipline in a times of hardship. It takes a certain amount of patience to endure that sense of helplessness, which is unpleasant but so vital to the way we learn and pick up information.
Rather than wallowing in insecurities or feeling crippled by self-loathing, the people we most admire have often found ways to use their insecurities to push themselves and to propel them somewhere higher.
So often, students try to bypass this feeling of helplessness. They are so eager to have mastery-level proficiency and are too embarrassed to admit to feeling lost, out of control or ignorant.
When I was 7 and first learning to play the piano, I never wanted anyone to see me practice. I would only perform a piece if I knew I could perform it immaculately, without any missteps, so that the focus would always be on the performance itself — not on the hours I put away in perfecting a song. It was important to me that I give the impression that I was inherently talented or that the best things I did took little to no effort.
But admitting to feeling lost or out of control can be so liberating.
Understanding that you don’t have to do things perfectly the first time — or all the time, for that matter — can change the ways you approach learning.
Rather than fighting the discomfort we feel as students when we are learning something new, we can choose to embrace it.
When we expect to do something perfectly the first time, we put a limit to our growth and far we can go. Accepting discomfort and embracing a little helplessness means never being accountable to that level of perfection, but it also means not putting a limit to your own growth.
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