I stumbled across a random idea this week, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot. It’s a topic that deserves deeper reading, but sometimes I like to dash out my thoughts while they are raw and then go back and bake them later.
This random idea has to do with the concepts of learned helplessness and learned hopefulness.
Learned helplessness is mentioned over and over again in pop psychology. You’ve probably heard of it. Martin Seligman did some behavioral experiments with dogs back in the Seventies, where they were electrocuted and they had to try to jump away from the shock. (Like, was that the only possible way to test this concept, seriously?) If the pattern was inconsistent, most of the dogs would eventually just lie there and quit trying to escape. This was supposed to demonstrate the concept of learned helplessness.
Learned hopefulness, on the other hand, is the idea that creatures (including us) can learn to be more persistent in dealing with obstacles if they believe that eventually their efforts will pay off.
The insight that I stumbled across is that Seligman, after decades of research, has decided he had it backwards.
It isn’t that adversity induces learned helplessness. It’s more that creatures start out feeling helpless - the state of infancy - and gradually learn their hopefulness as they become more skilled in solving problems.
Doesn’t this make so much more sense??
A baby isn’t all that good at most stuff. A baby will never get up and make a pot of coffee. A baby can’t tie its shoes, set up double authentication on its passwords, win a chili cook-off, or fold fitted sheets.
When I thought about learned hopefulness as an aspect of growth, the first image that came to mind was of a baby bird. There are two kinds of chicks: the kind that can get up and run around as soon as they hatch, and the kind that are naked and blind. A baby chicken vs a baby parrot.
You can’t blame a parrot chick for being bald and wobbly, so helpless in comparison to, say, a duckling. On the other hand, you can’t blame a duck for not living as long or being as smart as an adult parrot.
Sorry, I just lost my train of thought after doing an image search of altricial and precocial chicks. Water rail chicks!!!
Obviously infants are dependent for some kind of reason. If it wasn’t a survival trait it would have faded out.
A fun thing about birdwatching is when the parent birds get tired of feeding their juveniles, who are old enough to fend for themselves, full-sized, yet still needy and asking for a few last handouts. You may have noticed this. The juvenile will hop up and start shimmying its little wings. The adult will humor this behavior to a certain point in the season, and then start chasing off these adolescent beggars. It’s nature’s way. They have to learn to feed themselves by winter or... or they don’t.
That’s the limit for wild creatures, though. Base survival. All they need to do is to get food, avoid predators, and hopefully reproduce. It’s a little more complicated for us, isn’t it?
I’ve come to the conclusion that solving problems is what human beings are for. We get bored very quickly when we have no problems to solve, also known as the state of having “nothing to do.”
“Solve the biggest problem you can,” says Nick Hanauer, and that has become both my motto and my boogeyman. I keep asking myself, This? Is *this* the biggest problem I can be working on, or am I selling myself short? Am I not aiming high enough?
The reason this attitude works for me is that it puts the focus on the thing that needs to be done and my possible contribution, not on my goals or personal growth objectives. If the thing I am trying to do is important enough, then I have reason to propel myself forward, to tackle it. I believe that if I set out to learn something and I am willing to spend enough time focusing on it, then eventually I can figure it out.
Am I good enough today? Probably not. Maybe in a moral sense, perhaps, sure. In the sense of skills that need sharpening? If that is the question, then why ever stop?
It is hugely helpful to see ourselves in the context of fumbling and bumbling creatures that can continue to learn new things every day. It’s not our fault that we weren’t born knowing everything. Nobody was. How could a baby come into this world knowing how to touch-type and chiffonade vegetables? How could a baby be expected to perform calculus, play the saxophone, and speak eight languages?
Yet, think about it. Anything that one human can learn to do, probably any human could learn to do. With the right teacher or the right YouTube video, why not?
I don’t know how, and that’s okay.
I don’t know how yet. Maybe I don’t even want to know how. But if I did, I could figure it out.
This isn’t even a question of forgiveness. There is nothing to forgive. It is not a mistake to not know something. It is not wrong to be new and awkward.
I like being bad at things now. After several years of pushing myself to always be in a position where I am terrible at something, being humble is the best default state. I can trust the process, that wherever I am, other beginners have walked in that door and eventually walked out with competence. In that room is the place to mess up and be lousy at something, yet have fun with it. I’d rather have people laugh at me for my earnest blunders while I learn something new, if they’re going to laugh anyway.
At this point in my life, I’m perfectly willing to draw that fire so that another newbie is more comfortable. Go ahead and laugh - and when is the last time you pushed yourself to learn anything new?
Let us all be a little less precious about how others perceive us. Let us spend less time blaming ourselves or comparing ourselves to others. Instead let’s remember that as long as we are alive, we still have the capacity to learn new things, and isn’t that the most exciting thing?
What are you going to learn next?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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