Attachment to Failure

March 11, 2014

One subject that you're going to read a lot about on this blog is effective methods of learning skills. The most successful people are those who can reinvent themselves many times and adapt to change effectively. That means being able to learn new things quickly and efficiently.

At least as far back as when I was a teenager (and maybe earlier), I remember being warned by older people that my capacity for learning would dwindle as I got older. I'm only 26 now, so I haven't fully verified this for myself, but I suspect the reason why learning new skills gets harder with age has little to do with age itself and more to do with other factors correlated with it.

At least one major factor correlated with age that impedes learning is the ego. Older people are more stubborn because they've had more time to build and reinforce their ego. But some younger people are just as egotistical, while some older people have dodged this trap.

So how does the ego get in the way of learning?

As children, we were free to learn and experiment because we had no preconceived notions about the world. As we get older, we start building a mental map of how the world works. Not only that, society and culture start telling us about how the world should work. After a few years, we start confusing this map for the territory, and we get more and more stubborn in hanging on to our map even when there is evidence that it doesn't accurately reflect reality. This mental map has a lot of information about us. It tells us who we are, what we're like, how we should deal with other people. I can talk a long time about the problems that this map leads to, but for this post I want to focus on just one piece of information that it feeds us: our self image.

The longer we've lived, and the more we've accomplished, the more we feed our ego and build our self image. Our mind starts building a map to tell us why we're so special: "you got a PhD!", "you travelled the world!", "you made a lot of money!", "you mastered an art!". Once we've built this self-image, we start expecting the world to react to us a certain way. For example, a professor who is constantly surrounded by students who are seeking his approval may have a really hard time when the table gets flipped and he's playing the student. He has built a self-image that is incogruent with that of the student. He expects to be listened to. He expects and needs to be seen as proficient and skilled. When he's forced to learn something new, he's not focusing on learning the skill, he's trying to find the shortest path to verfiying his self-image in this new environment - the quickest way he can prove to everyone and to himself that he is indeed skilled and proficient. Outside of his field, he clearly is not, but his mental map doesn't care.

Once the focus is off the actual skill we're learning and on some other, tangential, outcome, all our learning efforts are doomed. Instead, our mind starts putting every little failure in the spotlight. From our very first attempts, each time we fail, we stress over it. Our self image takes a hit. Even if we don't make more mistakes, we spend our practice time mulling over the mistakes we did make before. This is called being attached to the failure. While I've made this mistake before and seen others my age make this mistake, it's a much more common affliction among older, moderately successful people who have had the time to build up a sizable ego and self-image. As a young person watching these people struggle with failure is agonizing, but without self-awareness, there is little that anybody can do about it.

How do you avoid getting attached to failure?

First and foremost, self-awareness works wonders. Sometimes you just need to know that the trap is there and you'll be able to avoid it. Other times, you might need some practice in stopping yourself from getting attached to every failure. Here are several methods that help me:

  1. Know that even the masters fails. A lot of people who make a living from teaching things need to put on a facade of perfection. It's marketing. But they fail all the time. They make mistakes all the time. People who have been practicing for decades fail. So if you've been practicing less, don't worry about it.
  2. Watch other people fail. Don't do this so you can compare yourself to them. Do it to observe people in the natural learning process. The more you observe, the more you realize that it is no big deal that you're going through the same things.
  3. If you're struggling to learn something right now but feel like you're being over-stressed and frustrated or your self-confidence is taking a hit, take a break. There's nothing like a good break to show you that you can live just fine without what you're trying to learn. So only learn it because it's fun, not because you're trying to prove something.