walking on custard

The Demoralising Truth About Learning New Things

11 Mar 2023

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

I was once so traumatised from needing the bathroom that I abandoned my car in traffic in the middle of central London. I sprinted desperately into the nearest hotel, across the lobby, and into the bathroom. The moments that followed contained the sharpest agony-to-relief transition of my time so far on Earth.

I appreciate that there’s some humor in this story. But reflecting on this episode now, I recognise it was responsible for travel anxiety for quite some time afterwards—and I can see it has broader parallels in my multipotentialite life. 

To explain, I’ll need to paint the scene in a little more detail:

It was my first time driving in London, and GPS travel was not yet widespread. Since I had no idea where I was going, I was following a friend who supposedly knew the route. As we had left, two hours ago, they had reassured me that the journey would be no more than forty minutes long.

By the time I reached my crisis point, it had been obvious for over an hour that we were lost. We were circling our destination, seemingly endlessly, taking wrong turn after wrong turn—waiting in crawling traffic on a journey that could conceivably never end, being drawn down one-way systems which took us further away from where we wanted to go. My horror mounted along with the fullness of my bladder, and each wrong turn only extended the journey for longer and longer. It was dawning on me that we… might… never… arrive.

Claustrophobic panic grew and grew until I couldn’t bear it any more. I put on the handbrake, opened the car door and ran away.

What overwhelmed me wasn’t the unpleasantness of the moment, although that was a lotThe worst part was that I had no idea how long I’d have to endure

If I’d known for certain that I would only have to bear this for thirty minutes, then I think I’d have been able to do it. Each minute would have brought me closer to the end. But I could see that some minutes were taking me further away from relief, and the realization that the burden was growing over time rather than shrinking was too much for me.

I’ve noticed this feeling—in a less acute form—whenever I’ve struggled with a task that seems to grow the more effort I put in. For example: learning literally anything.

Learning can feel like climbing a mountain that grows with every step

Recently I was helping somebody learn to code. They were having trouble getting their code to work. It turned out the solution had multiple steps, which is very common, but as we worked our way down the rabbit hole, I could see my friend getting increasingly demoralised. The size of the task before them was growing with each step we completed.

“I thought I just needed to learn the code, but now I’m having to learn about this tool and environment variables and operating systems and this other package and…”

Anybody who has ever learned anything complex will recognise how it feels for the goalposts to continually run away as whole new areas of knowledge open up. Learning can feel like climbing a mountain that grows with every step, or building a jigsaw puzzle out of pieces that split into more pieces whenever you put them down.

And, yet, people still manage to learn.

At first, my friend blamed themself. “Maybe I’m not cut out to code,” they fretted. But I pointed out to them that nobody is born with this knowledge. Why should they expect themselves to magically know it advance?! 

More importantly, the size of the task wasn’t growing at all—it was only their perception that had changed. From my point of view, they were learning rapidly and making great progress up the metaphorical mountain. It was their belief that the mountain was small that was being revised.

The trick is to expect this change in perspective when learning new things, and to greet it with delight instead of overwhelm. Oh no, more to learn?! becomes, Oh cool, more to learn!

I guess this is what people are referencing when they say to focus on the journey rather than the destination.

Persist or pivot

It’s easy to say “enjoy the journey” about an arguably fun task like ‘learning’, but how can that apply when the task genuinely sucks and we actually need it to stop? For example, I can’t imagine “learn to enjoy the journey” would be useful advice to my panicking, desperate self on that day in London.

When the task before us is growing and we desperately need it to end, we really have two options: persist or pivot. I persisted with driving for as long as I could bear, but eventually I needed to pivot—to abandon the car and run.

Similarly, if someone was stringing me along on a work project and I needed the situation to resolve, only so much persistence would be wise before I pivoted and moved on.

While persist and pivot are great tools for dire situations, true wisdom involves avoiding dire situations in the first place. If I’d been to the bathroom and researched the route before I left, then my particular dilemma may never have arisen. Unfortunately, it took that sharp lesson for me to learn to plan better.

Overwhelmed? Ask yourself these questions:

Most often, tasks that seem to be growing are finite, and the journey will end—and when it does, it can be a huge relief.

I hope you never have to go through a panicked escape of any kind, but if you find yourself overwhelmed by a situation that seems to be continually getting away from you then these questions may help:

  • Is it just my perception of the situation changing, or is the actual task growing?
  • Will more effort on my part actually help me to resolve this situation faster?
  • Can I accept the situation and learn to enjoy the journey?
  • If not, what’s my emergency escape route? (Hopefully this isn’t as extreme as “abandon a car in traffic.” If it seems to be, can I find a smoother escape?)

And there’s an important question for later, when the overwhelm has receded. How can I avoid these situations in future?

Multipotentialites aren’t more likely to pee our pants in traffic (at least, not to my knowledge), but we are likely to navigate ever-changing tasks and to repeatedly take on huge learning projects. Next time you’re dealing with a task that seems to grow the more you work on it, remember that you’re not alone and see if the ideas above provide some relief.

And trust me, the relief of finally getting such a task under control can be very great indeed.

This article was originally written for Puttylike

Neil Hughes

Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits.

Along with writing more books, he spends his time on standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question "so, what do you do?" and is worried that the honest answer is probably "procrastinate."

He would like it if you said hello.

© Neil Hughes 2019 — 2024
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