I don’t really have time to be writing this. But I’ve recently read that when I write about something new, when ideas are whizzing by, my brain grows. I think this article may have changed my life – at least my insecurity towards criticism and failure, especially in things I think I’m good at.
The article is titled ‘The learning myth: Why I will never tell my son he’s smart’. I urge you to read it. It changed the way I think about learning. We’ve known for a while that the brain is like a muscle, the more you use it the more it grows. This is especially good advice for people who are getting older because when we move out of active learning spaces (like school/college/work) we tend to drift in to repetitive tasks that don’t grow our brains at all. This is why my mother does crosswords every day, carries around a book of puzzles when travelling and people do Sudoko and the DH and I do MOOCS.
The article says that they’ve found that ‘neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.’ This is the statement that has changed my outlook. It means that constantly playing in your comfortable circle doesn’t make you learn as much as if you were to try your hand at something new. It might make your ego feel good but you haven’t grown. In fact trying something new might just make you look at the things you thought you did well, differently.
Many of us think that we are too old to learn new things. I always thought that about maths. If you think that, then you subscribe to the ‘fixed learning’ mindset. This is not a good path to be on. The ‘growth mindset’ says that the brain can learn anything. YOU can learn anything. At some point Einstein couldn’t count to 10 and even Shakespeare had to learn his ABCs. A new language, learning an instrument, cooking a new dish, even riding a bike at the age of 65 (i’m now determined to get my mother to learn how to ride a bicycle!) these may be things we will struggle at but struggle = growth. Even as I write this post, trying to get the right way to say all the thoughts rushing through my head I can feel my brain growing (as the kid in the article says), my neurons tingle.
The article talks about when to give praise – not when someone has done an easy task or task that comes easily to them, well but when they’ve struggled with something. I’ve always said to my mother and sister that the a major difference between working in the UK and working in India is the lack of praise that people give you in India. Now when I think about it my bosses and peers were not giving me praise when I churned out something easily but I would be showered with praise when I struggled and then got something right. The Indian culture has always been that the teacher is right (has the power) and the student is wrong (to be dominated) and that if we give someone too much praise, they’ll think too highly of themselves. We’re always trying to bring people down a notch or two, especially at school and at work.
These are concepts we all may instinctively know but rarely practice. We are constantly fed this belief that getting a 100% is the the prize. So many kids are pressured in school, some even to a fatal end, when they don’t get that 100% or ‘centum’ as we see schools proudly adverstise their flock in the papers. What kind of society are we creating when the newspapers have pictures of those who scored 100% in their exams and not those who improved from scoring 20% to now scoring 60%. What is our obsession with celebrating perfection and being perfect? We’ve known this about our bodies and the size zero models and now banned and unattractive. But what our our obsession with perfect brains?
You should know that I am one of those people who doesn’t take criticism too well. I’m trying to improve, I really am. But my belief that I can be the most calm cook, the domestic goddess, means that I take criticism (especially about household stuff) too personally. I caught myself doing it just this morning (after the fact of course). Our washing machine has just gone for repair because the gear box was failing and the tub wouldn’t spin. It’s also old and the cheapest one on the market. The DH commented that probably overloading the washing machine all these years may have led to the thing crashing out. He didn’t say that I had overloaded the washing machine, although I’m the one who loads it and starts it. But instead of agreeing (because I know I used to do that) I said quietly, ‘But I’ve stopped doing that now’. Something so simple as the washing machine, a repetitive task so simple I thought, ‘How can I be not good at that!’
I’ve known for a long time that any criticism that you get rattled about is actually your insecurity raising its ugly head. I’ve just had difficulty practicing it.
Perhaps this article has come to me at the perfect time. I’ve just finished a difficult 8 week MOOC called International Women’s Health and Human Rights by Stanford which taught me so many new things and connected me to women all around the world. I just received my course material from IGNOU (distance learning) to begin my Certificate in Teaching English as a Second Language. And I’m about to go to two international academic conferences (Capetown and Antwerp) to present the research we’ve been working on about social exclusion. I’m learning a lot and my work is being graded and scrutinised by international partners.
I’m definitely much better taking criticism at work than at household tasks. Mainly because I know that doing research one is constantly learning new things about people and the world they live in. The only way I can demand perfection at work, is in being a stickler for good copy editing. I hate people’s careless mistakes in the writing they produce or inability to learn from a simple mistake that’s been pointed out repeatedly. But household tasks – c’mon! how can I be bad at that?
I guess what I’ve been trying to say is that we shouldn’t be afraid to try something new that we will fail at at first. Nobody learned to walk on the first try, all of us fell down. This article has taught me that I don’t need to be afraid of failing at something because failure is just another word for learning, growing. Look at the comments at the end of Khan’s article. There is one by a 65 year old art history professor who is great at his job and has just started a Khan Academy class in middle school algebra. He had the courage to admit that he can’t do math. That has inspired me to do more basic math, and restart that French class where I left off. The article has made me less afraid of making mistakes, learning something new and hopefully taking criticism better.
Do read and share the article by Salman Khan. I hope it changes you and we can all go out there and make more mistakes!