Why Adults are Bad Learners

For those of us with a “grown up” day job, it’s easy to feel like our exploratory years are behind us. At least while we’re in the middle of the 9-5 routine, taking time out to learn something new — just for the pleasure of it — sounds like a luxury. We may even be too worn out by the chaos of our routine for exploratory learning to even sound pleasant.

But I wonder, what happened the last time you let yourself learn something new? Not three minutes stolen on a bathroom break to read the news digest from your overstuffed personal inbox. But actually joining a class, finishing a book, or getting trained in something?

Bring it to mind…even if it was years ago. That kickboxing class you joined before COVID? A cooking class your spouse dragged you to? A parenting class when you were expecting your first child? Whatever it was, if you’re like most of us, once you got into class where you had “somewhere to be” that gave you permission to enjoy learning, you probably had fun with it.

Maybe you made it to Black Belt back in high school before college and your professional life took over. Or perhaps you weathered a breakup by joining a poetry workshop, photography course, or started making pottery. Whatever it was, it wasn’t just the DOING that captured your attention and energized your mind. New information — especially information organized to help us gain mastery — has a way of lighting up the brain, and forming new neurological connections that pop up in the most unexpected parts of life.

The benefits of learning something new include:

  • Increased activity in your brain (which makes the cells of your brain healthier.)
  • Potential for new relationships in the learning environment
  • Increased range of rapport building based on new knowledge
  • Distraction from pain, stress, and uncertainty
  • Increased energy for life
  • Indirect preparation for new, unforeseen opportunities

That is one of the cool things we result from learning at any age; any information you master, even on a small level, equips you to take advantage of new opportunities. Whether you’re applying for a formal job, or simply communicating with someone to negotiate a sale; past learning can tip the scales in your favor, make you stand out among your competitors, and help you generate creative solutions.

Even as you read this, you may be nodding your head, knowing that it’s our unique experiences and knowledge that helps us succeed. So why is it that most professional adults don’t seem to make time to learn new things?

Why Adults are Bad at Learning:

  1. Adults don’t like to mess up. What’s tough is, if you’re engaged in learning something truly new, you are going to not know a lot of things. If you throw yourself into the learning process, experiment, and start applying what you know; you’re going to have a messy go of it. That’s great for learning, and kids tend to do a better job at messy learning than we adults do.
  2. Adults think FUN means NOT IMPORTANT. If it feels good, it must be easy…and if it’s easy, it can’t be serious, important, or praise-worthy right? The problem is, when your brain is learning, it IS having fun. And when you’re learning a skill that fits your natural strengths, you will feel pleasure as your strengths come on line and learn the skill. Having fun learning is a sign of the highest ROI of your time. Be more like a kid and follow the fun to keep learning…don’t discard it as a luxury as soon as your schedule gets tight.
  3. Adults focus on passing the test. If you’re taking CEUs or going to a mandatory certification, or taking some course required for your degree that you have to just “get done with,” you’re at the risk of learning information solely through the filter of preparing for the test at the end. When you do this, the learning project becomes no more than a line on your resume. Most of the value of learning comes from the process of learning itself, and from letting your brain form connections that enrich your thinking for the rest of your life.

I guess I have learning on the brain, since I recently finished my Level 1 Certification in Wine from the The Wine & Spirits Educational Trust in London. You bet I loved receiving a 100% for my certification test score. But giving my attention to the process of learning more about wine to increase my mastery was the real payoff.

It seems like we adults keep waiting for permission to learn and enjoy things that matter to us. Waiting to retire before we experience travel. Waiting until we’re promoted to go back to school for the thing we actually want to do when we grow up.

Chances are, following your fascination with learning and mastering something new will open doors you’ve been trying to pry open with hustle and patience. Maybe you’ve already had this experience; I’d love to hear about it.

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