Tom on…….Leaning how to learn..

My daughter started to learn how to horse ride about 2 years ago.

She loved it.

Then recently she started to refuse to get ready to go on the morning.

What was strange was that she would always come off the horse with a great big smile on her face and yet here we are battling with her to leave the house.

I had a suspicion that one of her instructors was part of what was going on.

“It’s John isn’t it?” I asked

“No” she said

“Sweetie I know you find it more difficult with John, would you like to talk about that?”

“No, I’m not going” she said

“OK” I said

So we got dressed early and both went down together to go and cancel the session – I wanted some more time with her before we just cancelled so decided physically going was helpful.

We got there and I said “Can I ask you a question?”


“If I could get you a private lesson with Emma would you like that?”

“YES” she said, with a beaming face.

“So it IS John then isn’t it?”

“Yes” she said in a sullen voice before she started to cry.

“It’s ok sweetie, you don’t have to be afraid to talk about how you feel about this” and I hugged her.

So we booked her some private lessons with Emma and she loved them.

It was at this point that it occurred to me that we must in fact learn how to learn.

John was a good guy, he really, really knew his stuff but the reason she didn’t like him was that he was bold, direct, and instructive and at times he could be a tad intolerant of anyone not paying attention.

Something Poppy didn’t always do.

What I knew was that it wasn’t necessarily ultimately helpful to shield Poppy from situations and people that made her feel uncomfortable but at the same time she had to grow a bit in confidence so that she knew that that was sometimes in her ultimate best interest.

There is no doubt that Emma was also a very good teacher and also knew her stuff, but it’s not particularly helpful to avoid people who’s style we don’t immediately feel comfortable with.


Because 1. That’s not real life and 2. They will no doubt have a lot to teach us!

What I was helping Poppy to understand was that she can in fact trust that John knew what he was doing, trust him to direct her, and learn to not take the boldness and occasional intolerance personally – it wasn’t personal.

If she could learn how to do this she would be immeasurably better off.

To be able to listen to instruction and discount any behaviour or tone that wasn’t to her liking will be most helpful for her future.

You cannot live your life trying to avoid people and circumstances that are not immediately comfortable – it does nothing to help us grow.

There is an important distinction here – I am not saying that direct, bold intolerance in any significant measure has a place as an accepted practice in the workplace but I am saying that we can’t simply avoid it – we can learn to be selective about what information we accept and what information we reject.

Let’s consider why people generally might find it difficult: because they think it says something about them.

Lots of us will carry a ton of baggage that means we interpret say bold intolerance towards us as message such as “don’t be so stupid, you stupid excuse for a human being” or “you are weak and pathetic, now get on with your job and stop being so useless” – it sounds harsh – but honestly – these are the kinds of harsh messages we sometimes tell ourselves.

Why do you think some people have such a hard time admitting they are wrong?

Because it might mean that these messages are true.

Of course – it doesn’t.

Learning how to be wrong can be very freeing – so what – I’m wrong – I said something, did something that was naive, stupid, ignorant, whatever – it doesn’t make me a worthless human being, it just makes me wrong!

“In the context of all there is to know, and all there ever has been to know, what we each know is closer to nothing than to something”

On that basis you might say we kind of are “stupid” if “stupid” means ignorant of knowledge.

And the trick is being ok with that!

This puts us in a great position to fail, be wrong, and to learn – to be ok with being seen to fail and make mistakes – or to begin that process.

It takes time.

There can be a lot of pain associated with failure and “looking stupid” – and therefore if you want to create a truly active learning environment in the workplace you have to undergo a fair amount of re-training – of training people how to learn.

Before I move on, let’s examine the benefits – I have witnessed organisations that are optimised to learn and those that are not, the ones that are not are slow, cumbersome, angry, reactive, aggressive, political, and are often driven by a merry go round of lies (as people try to protect themselves). By contrast I have seen (or helped create) organisations that are optimised for learning – these are agile, fast, safe, and learn quickly – they are focused on growing people so those people can add more value to the business and they are highly active in creating and participating in the learning process for each individual.

And in these organisations it’s ok not to know and it’s ok not to be ok, what counts is what’s true.

Poppy didn’t feel like she could be initially open about how she was feeling – in part this would have been our responsibility as parents to create the environment where she does feel like she can, in part this is an important part of her learning how to speak her own truth – how she truly feels about something.

Telling our own truth can, in fact, be a bit of an art form at times – we can be quite adapt at pushing down or pushing away how we really feel about something – it takes consistent practice to learn how to speak the truth about how one truly feels about a given thing – and that is an important part of learning.

So let’s summarise:

  1. Learning how to learn is something we need to learn!
  2. We must do this in the most active way – talking about it, using tools to facilitate it and building it into almost everything we do and how we do it.
  3. We must create an environment that is physiologically safe while at the same time ensuring high levels of accountability and driving people beyond the point of comfortable – consistently.
  4. We must actively learn how to speak our own truth: “the truth is I feel stupid!”
  5. We must learn how to deal with the truth and direct people in a healthy way.
  6. Build all of this into your performance process – get people talking about their mistakes, get them talking about their learning and slowly help to desensitise people to it.
  7. Then push, push, push, push – in a safe environment like this you can move very fast.


If you liked this Article, found it helpful, useful, or interesting, please like, share, and drop in some comments

Tom created Pathway, a performance process that enables businesses to create a truly active learning environment that drives up growth and performance

You might also like the book “Pathway”, available on Amazon

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