It strikes me that one of the first things you must do in order to learn a skill is to stop worrying whether you are being observed or not. As soon as you start watching yourself to see how good you look, you lose concentration. And more pertinently, as soon as you start trying to look good, you forbid yourself to look bad – and inevitably, when you are still incompetent, you are going to look incompetent. The only way to avoid looking incompetent when you are is to not do the thing you are incompetent at. And if you don’t do it, how are you going to get better at it?
Before you can learn, you have to be willing to admit that you don’t know. Not just admit, just whisper it to yourself, not just say it’s so, but be seen as incompetent. You must be willing for your teachers, your co-workers, your more experienced colleagues, to know your incompetence. Before you can learn, you must be willing for the people whose good opinion is most important to witness your incompetence.
Is it any wonder that learning is a hard thing?
I think that what is often termed “willingness to learn” is in fact willingness to be ignorant. The belief that you know everything, or at least everything worth knowing, is very comforting and reassuring and makes you nearly impossible to teach, because you won’t believe that what you are being taught is worthwhile, if it is new to you, or is correct, if it contradicts your old certainties. Giving in to the fact that you don’t know something, making ignorance and incompetence and inadequacy part of your self-image, is a frightening thing. Who wants to be inadequate?
But until you believe that you are inadequate, you can’t stop being inadequate. Bit of an impasse, that. How do we get out of it?
I think one of the ways to live in a world where people are willing to learn is to deliberately make it safe to be incompetent in our presence. We have to be the kind of people who don’t laugh at people for ignorance, or shame them for the lack of practised skill. We have to be people who, instead of telling people off for doing something wrong, tell them how to do it right.
Most people will accept that a child does not know how to do a particular thing. But too many of us go from “it is okay for this person to be ignorant of this thing” to “there is no need to teach this person about this thing”. There exists a place in between, where it is both okay not to know, and not okay to continue not knowing. It is okay that you don’t know how to cook, but you still need to learn how to cook. You are not a bad person because you don’t know, but it would be better if you did. The tension between those two ideas leads us to forget to teach people as children, and then shame those same people for ignorance as adults.
We should probably stop doing that.