How to learn new things

My first foray into the world of training could not have been more fraught.

It was the mid 1990s and the afternoon newspaper on which I worked as a sub-editor was about to make the change from one production system to another. Editorial staff were already working on computers (the Atex system) but the newspaper was still being made up by human hand. Now, people were going to move to a fully electronic system, on Apple Macs, using the Quark system.

I volunteered to be part of the transition project, specifically as one of the people who would train colleagues to use the new system. We had a small training room (with Arctic air conditioning), six Macs and hope in our hearts.

The project went well and over several months everyone was moved to the new system, with varying levels of mastery. The uneven levels of competence at the end reflected on us as trainers, of course, but they also closely matched the mindsets of the people who entered that small, cold room. Here’s what I learned (and these insights have been the mainstay of my training practice ever since):

One: The man who asked if he could bring his blankie with him (it was so cold, he said – but also he was nervous) sailed through the training. He was willing upfront to admit his vulnerability and that really helped as he was able to ask for help when he needed it.

Two: Age was a factor – but it cut more ways than you might expect. Younger staff “got it” more quickly than older people – but not always. The young people who saw themselves as cool and trendy thought they knew it all coming in, and didn’t pay attention as well as they might have. They were slow learners, actually (and disruptive to other trainees). And some slow-learning adults who were determined to master this new thing got there faster.

Three: A sense of agency is key. In the post-training, support phase I learned there are two main kinds of seekers of help: the ones who will do everything they can to fix the problem themselves and the ones who call for help instantly. Those two mindsets were expressed again and again in two sentences: “I’m really sorry – I think I did something wrong and now I’m stuck” OR “It did something and now it is broken.” (“It” being the computer, the system, the program, the network, the goldfish inside the machine for all the person knew.) In the first case, the trainee assumes they have some power and accepts that they make mistakes. In the second case, the trainee assumes they have no power and the fault must lie outside of themselves. Guess which ones got to grips with the new system faster?

Four: Allied to point three is the question of underlying mindset. This article tells the story of Jim Doherty, a maths teacher who was determined not to become “a teacher who stops learning”. The article notes: “For children, a fixed view of intelligence can lead them to negatively label themselves with statements such as, “I’m not good at math”.” Similarly, when professionals struggle with new demands, they may be tempted to use phrases such as “I’m too old for this,” or “I already know what works for me,” or “I’m just not a computer person.” Those two mindsets are called “growth” and “fixed” mindsets. And the kind of mindset you have is a crucial factor in all learning.

So, if you are a trainee on a course (or simply about to learn a new skill) you can increase your chances of success by:

  1. Being aware of your anxieties and fears.
  2. Assuming you are capable of learning new things.
  3. Not assuming you already know all this!
  4. Accepting you will make mistakes, trying to fix them and asking for help.

And taking a blanket might not be a bad idea!

Main picture: Photo by SteveTaint,

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Contact me if you would like to chat about how I can help with all your communication needs (writing, editing, coaching and training, social media). I also help small businesses and organisations with project and operational management.

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