Are You Learning or Confirming?
Sometimes it’s good to do what you don’t want to do.
Everyone wants to be a lifelong learner. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble aspiration after all. And in the digital world we have access to enormous amounts of information – mainstream media, books, podcasts, Google. Infinite wisdom is at our fingertips if we want it and everyone with an opinion has a platform to share it. In fact, it feels like there’s a constant waterfall of information flowing around us, and it’s almost impossible to stay dry. We absorb it both subconsciously and consciously. But how much of that learning is actually just confirming what we already know?
I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to truly learn something new as an adult. Not so much a new skill, or something technical, but something about ourselves and the world around us. We did it daily as kids. Everything was shiny and fascinating so our spongey brains soaked in novelty wherever we went. And as we grew up we crystallised those findings until we arrived at a so called point of maturity, inevitably feeling like we ‘knew it all’. But then comes adulthood, and the realisation that actually we don’t know much. That’s where the process of unlearning and retraining our brains begins. In the confusion of this new step, I sometimes think we’re missing out on valuable lessons because we confuse confirming with learning.
So what’s the difference exactly? Learning is defined as ‘the acquisition of knowledge or skills through study, experience or being taught’. Confirming is ‘establishing the truth or correctness of something previously believed to be the case’. In one scenario you build on a blank slate, and in the other, you reinforce a preconceived notion. On top of that, confirmation bias is a real thing. We’re wired to interpret incoming evidence as confirmation of our existing beliefs instead of testing our mental boundaries. It feels comfortable and helps us make sense of a confusing world. There’s huge potential then for information silos forming both in our own minds, and the population at large.
We are all experts at collecting information that validates our views. We love to find kindred spirits and people on our wavelength and the older we get, the less tolerance we have for people we don’t like, and who we disagree with. We read things that appeal to us, and fuel the confirmation loop, always seeking out external information in line with our personal philosophy. But what about hanging out with our exact opposites – the people we don’t understand at all. What about challenging ourselves to read something that we don’t naturally gravitate to? Of course it’s always valuable to add depth to our views and knowledge of the world, but what about breadth, a new perspective?
In the last few months I’ve learnt a lot about myself and the way the world works. It’s been a massive paradigm shift. And to honest, it has sometimes sucked big time. Things that I understood to be ‘true’, to be ‘facts’, had to be reconsidered. When things finally click, not only is it disheartening, but it’s painful. That’s because to truly learn from our mistakes, it requires doing something an ‘unnatural’ way the second time round – not reverting to old patterns of behaviour, and outdated ways of seeing things. It requires us to accept that things that we originally saw as right, might actually be wrong.
Maybe true ‘learning’ feels uncomfortable and gritty. If something is genuinely new to your brain, and your way of thinking, at first it won’t mesh well. It will grate across the surface of your mind, scraping away everything you knew, and inviting you to resurface with something new. And it won’t come easily. It takes 28 days to fully rewire a neural pathway. Until that point, you’re probably operating on autopilot.
So what can we do to learn instead of confirm? These are a few ideas to get out of your mental comfort zone;
-Do some research into something that’s totally foreign to you.
-Watch a documentary about something that is outside of your interests.
-Befriend someone at work who you wouldn’t normally talk to. Get to know them and understand them.
-Take a class that you know you’ll be bad at, but persist anyway.
-Go on a date with someone who isn’t your normal type.
-Don’t automatically dismiss something because it’s not what you’re used to. Ponder it over, see why it annoys you so much and see what you can actually learn from it.
Learning is not always linear and confirming is not always beneficial. Being truly open to new ideas is a scary concept because we like to keep some semblance of control over the way we view the world, and our place in it. But there is so much to be gained from embracing what at first feels foreign. It might end up being exactly what we need to learn, and showing us a whole new side of ourselves and the world. Learn, don’t confirm.
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