I haven’t really enjoyed the process of learning for years.
The book character that I was probably most compared to as a child was – classic noughties cliché alert – Hermione Granger. Not for having bushy hair (it’s always been fine and flat) or for being badass (I was a hopelessly wimpy), but for being one of those high grades, teachers pet, insufferable know it all sort of children.
As I moved into my teenage years I tried somewhat to shake that off and pretend to be ‘cool’ instead, but the fact remained that I was pretty much a geek, and continue to be a pretty dorky adult – so you would be forgiven for assuming that one thing I just couldn’t get enough of is learning.
And although I certainly tried to pretend that that was the case at times, unfortunately it’s just not correct, because what I’ve come to realise recently is that for years and years now I haven’t enjoyed learning. I’ve enjoyed knowing, and they are very different things.
One opens you up to failure, and one implies existing success. One involves ongoing development, and the other feels sure, established and familiar. One brings ample opportunity for embarrassment or feeling stupid, and one makes it easy to feel comfortable and skilled.
If I tell you now that my least favourite feeling and one of the sensations I’m most scared of – against the better judgement of the logical side of my brain – is embarrassment, you might see my problem. (You might also question why someone who is terrified of embarrassment would write about herself on the internet, and you’d probably have a good point, but perhaps we’ll look into that one another time.)
As a general rule and more and more as I’ve gotten older; if I can’t do something, I don’t do it. It sounds awful, I know – and aside from the obvious point that generally we all like doing things we’re good at, I assume that part of it is to do with perfectionism and a less than healthy fear of failure. Having to be taught something necessarily implies that you aren’t already great at it, and I don’t like to not be great at things. I like to excel at things, so if I’m not going to excel at them, I’d rather not risk the embarrassment of attempting them at all. In situations where I need or want to learn something new – because obviously, I haven’t managed to avoid gaining any knowledge or skills for my whole adult life – I’ll do my utmost to squirrel away at it in private, away from the eyes of people who for some reason I’m convinced are going to laugh at me for not having known it or been great at it already.
I’ll probably sound even more like a gratuitous arsehole with what I say next, but I think, in a way, that is one problem that comes from being considered a ‘bright’ child. You become accustomed to that being one of your ‘things’, and it comes as quite a disappointment several years later when you realise that actually, you’re just an average person living an average life like everyone else. You make the assumption that you’re just supposed to innately be good or clever at things, because that’s what you were always praised for, rather than working at them – and if you’re not, you avoid them rather than looking to learn, because you feel like the problem is with your ability.
Poor little teachers pet. (I don’t want to imply that I was some kind of magical ‘gifted’ child, so to confirm; I was just your classic top set, top marks, keen to please kinda kid. No particular special talent, just a person with a generous helping of A’s.)
Clearly, it’s stupid, because we do not just spring merrily out of the womb knowing the rules of grammar, the names of the continents, how to cook pasta, the way to our nearest Topshop, or many of the other things that we know or know how to do. We learn them.
So throughout life, when we’re trying to grow, develop, change – when we’re trying to be better, which is something I’m really focused on at the moment – we sort of have to be open to learning.
That’s why I made a conscious decision recently to stop closing myself off to all the things I could learn and do just because I was scared of not being the best at them already. And it began last year, I guess, with this blog. Where I’d previously done any adulthood learning in as private a situation as possible, I was suddenly having to learn in plain sight. I wasn’t going off to privately read up on or practise something before anyone else saw it, I was having to put something I was a complete novice at into the public domain (for all those three people on the first day to read – one of which was probably my boyfriend), and nearly a year later I’m continuing to do so. I’m not a complete novice at it anymore perhaps, but I’m certainly not excelling either, and hey, it’s not so bad.
Opening myself up to the idea of learning as a continuous journey and a positive experience, as well as allowing myself to accept that it involves failing along the way (and that the best learning involves failing enthusiastically) has been pretty bloody great. I’ve almost rediscovered something like joy in the process of learning rather than just the results, and it’s one that hasn’t been there since I was self aware enough to shy away from the potential for embarrassment.
There was a training course at work the other day – the very public kind in a group that would have terrified me, and still does – and I was due to be taking it. When the day came, I was actually ill and ended up missing out, but when I felt genuine disappointment about not getting to sit in a room and openly expose my lack of knowledge for everyone to see rather than secret delight at having managed to avoid it, I could tell I had actually managed to start shifting my perception of the whole thing.
It’s something I think I’ll be working on for a while, because I’m still easily embarrassed and still hate not knowing things – but it’s a case of repositioning it in my head. If knowing implies existing success, it also implies not bothering to dig any deeper than the familiar and accepted; and if learning opens you up to failure, it’s also about expanding, developing, and questioning things. I know which side of that I’d rather be on – plus there’s nothing quite like the simple joy that can come from the trial, error and little successes when doing something you don’t already know, is there?
What I’m wearing
Trench coat – M&S | Tee – H&M | Jeans – River Island | Boots – Dorothy Perkins | Bag – Primark | Sunglasses – Primark
Photography: Rob Poor