Friends And Enemies Of Learning

Friends And Enemies Of Learning

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Knowledge and learning are critical. You have to learn new ways of being and moving in the world, new ways to carry yourself, and new practices to achieve your ambitions. Learning is the only way forward. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty of how to learn, you hit a wall. In fact, there are several barriers in your way. These are the enemies of learning.

There are different learning styles for different people, and most of the learning programs try to take care of that. What also needs to be taken care of is the concept of “Enemies of Learning”. By Enemies of learning, we mean, those tendencies, habits, beliefs, etc that make learning difficult for that person. They are not able to get the most out of the learning because they have strong belief systems around the topic or about themselves. How many times we have heard: “Don’t ask me to change… I am like that”, from people around us and from us as well. This by default tells us that we are not willing to change and hence we would not listen to any learning coming towards us.

There are forces at work that are committed to making sure that you never learn. You can’t see them and you can’t touch them, but they are deadly, as they live in your mind. Here are just a few of the more important ones along with strategies on how to deal with them:

1. Knowing.

The number one enemy of learning is knowing, or more precisely, the assumption of knowing. This is the automatic response of, “I already know this,” that arises whenever you are exposed to something new. The mind quickly goes to, “This is just like X, and I already know that.” This is a great way to close off possibilities, as once you know something you tend to quit paying attention.

2. The unwillingness to be a beginner.

The most critical first step in the process of authentic learning is the willingness to be a beginner and to make all three of these critical declarations:

  • I commit to learn.
  • I authorize a coach to instruct me.
  • I am at peace with being a beginner.

3. Being blind to our blindness.

We all have blind spots. We can’t understand, comprehend, or visualize that which we are blind to. We need someone to help us. Blind spots are normal, natural, and common, but they limit us. Books, lectures, and recordings can help us see new possibilities for learning, and so can asking a friend or co-worker for an honest assessment of our actions.

4. The desire to be comfortable.

Comfort is the enemy. When confronted with new ideas, most people react strongly. When our familiar patterns, associations, and responses are challenged, often we respond with fear and anger. Our minds cling to stability and predictability, and we tend to judge something new as dangerous. The notion of learning and changing, moreover, always looks good from a distance. In fact everyone is in favor of learning, as long as it doesn’t mean me and it doesn’t mean now. When presented with our own opportunities for change and growth, however, discomfort arises. The array of excuses, dodges, and delays we toss out can be astonishing.

In short, beware of the perfectly natural desire for comfort. Unfortunately, comfort and authentic learning are mutually exclusive. You have to get out of your comfort zone.

5. The insistence on understanding everything all the time.

Any new idea or practice seems difficult, complicated, and unclear, simply by virtue of being new. And yet, along with our desire for comfort and safety, we also crave understanding, falling prey to the notion that clarity yields safety and certainty.

When an unfamiliar situation lacks clarity, we tend to label the agents of change as “wrong.” “If the coach really knew what he was talking about,” the quarterback grumbles after practice, “then this new offense wouldn’t be so confusing.” “If this is so great, then it should be easy to understand.” In both instances, a person grants himself permission to dismiss the new practice and retreat into the comfort of the familiar. That retreat closes the possibility for learning.

6. Confusing opinions with learning and confusing awareness with competence.

An opinion is not the same as a thought. Human beings endlessly churn out opinions about every aspect of their lives. This is natural and normal, but it’s not the same thing as thinking. Thinking is the process of generating an original idea or distinction. Thinking requires energy and attention; having an opinion requires neither. Under the sway of our opinions, moreover, we wall ourselves off from learning as we think that because we have an opinion about something, we must “know” it.

A related enemy appears when we confuse awareness with learning; we mistakenly assume that a new awareness automatically equates to a new competence. The attainment of awareness and the development of competence are two entirely different processes. The main failing of most personal or professional development work is that it settles for providing you with awareness as opposed to building new competence.

7. Addiction to fast food or the magic pill.

We want it all, and we want it now. The disorder is especially prevalent in the business world. Developing genuinely new management practices requires months and often years of work. The more senior the executive, the more deeply embedded her style, and the longer it takes to learn and change. It’s foolish to assume that any 2-day corporate retreat can prove sufficient for reshaping practices that have taken decades to establish. Indeed, presuming such instant change to be possible can cause lasting harm to individuals and organizations.

Don’t be deluded by the zeitgeist of instant gratification and the failure of our society’s established learning practices. If you want to really learn, then you need to get past the quest for the magic pill, the latest and the greatest, and work to build new practices.

8. Forgetting the essential role of the body.

We claim that while the mind understands, it is the body that actually learns. To develop better leadership skills, you can’t just study books, watch TV, and attend motivational lectures. This takes practice in real time with real people with real impacts and personal risk. Risk-taking entails dealing with fear, and fear lives in the body. It takes time to build capability and skills for coping with fear. It takes new behavior when fear arises. The mind understands, but the body learns.

9. The drive for novelty.

The quest for novelty can be debilitating and, ironically, undermine your future. If you’re constantly on the hunt for something new, after all, you’ll never focus your time, attention, and energy on the long process of developing the competence that will deliver authentic change. Under a media bombardment touting the latest fads, theories, and systems, the lure of the next big thing at times proves overwhelming.

In the business world, this enemy shows up as the “buffet table” approach to training. We take a bit of Tom Peters, a dash of W. Edwards Deming, a habit or two of Stephen Covey’s, a notion from Warren Bennis, a theory from Peter Drucker, lash it together with some Six Sigma, spicy quotes, and colorful PowerPoint slides, and voilá! The result is a “greatest hits” training program. Lacking coherence, however, the patchwork program fails to deliver. With no unifying design or structure, the result is a very expensive piece of junk instead of a dream car. Yet we continue to cling to a blind, unreasoning faith in novelty. You cannot learn to be an effective leader by chasing after every new interpretation that comes along or trying to cherry-pick tips and techniques from a host of teachers. The same is true in the transformation you are undertaking.

10. Living in constant assessment.

You are exposed to something new. Your mind’s first response is to assess or judge it. The most common and basic assessments are: I like/don’t like this. I agree/disagree with this. These simple, automatic assessments close down the possibilities for authentic learning. If I like something, then I tend to quit listening as my mind moves quickly from liking to knowing: “I like this because it is like X, and I know X is true.” Similarly, if I don’t like something, then the mind tunes it out: “I don’t like this, therefore it must be wrong; if it is wrong, then there is no reason to pay attention.”

The same thing takes place with agreeing and disagreeing. Either assessment tranquilizes us into closing down the possibility that there is anything new to learn. If I agree, then there is no reason to keep paying attention, because I know what she is saying to be true. If I disagree, then there is no reason to stay engaged, as this guy is obviously an idiot, and who needs to listen to an idiot?

11. Characterization.

We make up stories about ourselves and the world, and confuse these stories with reality. We seize upon our incompetence in a single domain, for instance, and cement that into the foundation of who we are. But lack of competence does not equate to a lack of character. The fact that I can’t seem to hammer a nail straight doesn’t mean that I’m dumb, lazy, uncoordinated, or incapable of learning. Far too often, we use a simple beginner’s mistake to start a story that begins with the line, “I can’t do this. I’m too old, too young, too busy, too fat, too uncoordinated. . . .” The ways to fill in the blank are endless. This self-sabotaging statement is often followed by another: “I’m not smart enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not good enough; it’s too late for me.” Another variation on this narrative goes: “I can’t learn that; it’s too sophisticated, too complicated, too technical.”

Common to all these statements is one underlying, unspoken theme: There’s something wrong with me. This unfounded interpretation, which chokes off learning and stunts our growth as human beings, is no less tragic for being so common. That it happens is a part of life. That we let it stop us from living the lives we want is no longer acceptable.

12. We believe that we can or should learn on our own.

This is dangerous for a number of reasons. First, it is too easy to fall prey to ungrounded assessments about how we are doing and delude ourselves into thinking that we are making great progress or that we really suck when neither is the case. In addition, the reason that we typically attempt to learn on our own is that we are embarrassed to be a beginner in public. This too is a big mistake. Authentic, sustained learning is an inherently social process. We learn best and most easily in a community of committed learners. You get maximum benefit by learning with some friends or partners. If you create your own learning community, you are likely to have the most success. Learning is much easier with a committed team, a community of learners who share the same ambition and commitment.

Friends Of Learning

It is important to note that the Enemies of Learning are not limited to individuals; they can also occur collectively and are an integral part of the culture of a group and an organisation, often as “unwritten ground rules”.

Observing and acknowledging Enemies of Learning is the first step in moving beyond them. Another step is to identify and develop Friends of Learning. 

These include:

  1. Openness and Awareness

Openness, awareness, and wonder in the body can open a space for learning. Think about when you were a kid, getting excited about a new toy or adventure. Tap into that as a leader. Take up a physical discipline such as martial arts, running, yoga, dancing, improv comedy, or somatic practices. This time “being” in your body will start to awaken your connection to your body to allow it to become a teacher of leadership for you.

  2. Exploring Your Assessments

Can you ground your assessment against a standard that everyone can agree on? If you cannot, then you have only a dogmatic judgment, and that may be getting in the way of your learning. Ask yourself, “What standard am I using to make this assessment?” Can you listen to another view when presented? Reevaluating and letting go of assessments can free you to listen, to open up to learning.

  3. Positive Moods and Emotions

Deal with your negative moods and emotions so that learning can show up. Easy to talk about, but often difficult to do. The best way to cultivate learning is to focus on powerful positive moods and emotions such as ambition, gratitude, acceptance, wonder, and awe which open up learning. This is a place where an effective coach can help.

  4. Being Open To Learn

This simple act can open up a powerful world to you as a leader. The ability to say I do not know opens up the space for learning, and as a leader, the space to create a more powerful outcome. This means you won’t be limited by your blind spots; a huge part of being an effective leader requires self-awareness.

  5. Curiosity

These are powerful friends of learning to resolve our blind spots and remove our camouflage. Open your eyes, your ears, and your bodies to learning. Books on leadership and topics such as emotional intelligence are great places to start to explore. Hiring a coach allows a different set of eyes to see for you, and to help you see.

Apart from these one should have humility and courage. 

Humility, which enables declaring ignorance and granting authority to someone as a source of learning; biologist Humberto Maturana stated that learning commences when the student takes the hand of the teacher.

Courage, which allows us to be open to new and unfamiliar learning, as well as new and unfamiliar ways of learning.

Escaping negative moods to develop a constructive emotional frame of mind for learning to include curiosity, wonder, appropriate humour, lightness and playfulness; and determination to persist with challenging learning.

Being a learner is central to developing what The Dalai Lama calls a flexible or pliant mode of thinking.

“Life today is characterised by sudden, unexpected and sometimes violent change. A supple mind can help us reconcile the external changes going on all around us. It can also help us integrate all of our internal conflicts, inconsistencies, and ambivalence. Without cultivating a pliant mind, our outlook becomes brittle and our relationship to the world becomes characterised by fear. By adopting a flexible, malleable approach to life, we can maintain our composure even in the most restless and turbulent conditions. It is through our efforts to achieve a flexible mind that we can nurture the resiliency of the human spirit.”

How useful do you think it would be to do an audit of yourself, and perhaps also your workgroup or organisation? You may want to do the following:

On your own spend 10 minutes writing what you consider to be your Enemies of Learning and Friends of Learning (perhaps in two columns on the same page).

Find at least one other person whose opinions you respect and ask them to share what they consider to be your Enemies and Friends of Learning. Be mindful of not defending yourself against their views – simply listen and note down their thoughts. Sometimes when others’ opinions “sting” and we want to defend our selves they have hit an important nerve and perhaps our defensiveness is avoidance.

Identify important steps you will take to reduce the limitations of your Enemies of Learning and expand your Friends of Learning.

If you want to look at your work group or organisation take 10 minutes to write what you consider to be your Enemies of Learning and Friends of Learning.

Then include others in the group or organisation in the activity without being sidetracked by stories or justifications. Once the list is complete invite people to provide practical suggestions and make commitments to reducing the limitations of your Enemies of Learning and expanding your Friends of Learning.


Learning is challenging and takes place only through practice, patience, and perseverance. Indeed, these three qualities are the hallmarks of a committed learner. The only way to embody a new competence is through recurrent practice. Practice takes time and requires patience. The committed learner must continue to practice, persevering through doubt, weariness, negative assessment, and the occasional rotten mood.

All of these enemies of learning have likely attacked you at one time or another. You are probably more vulnerable to some than to others. While fierce and relentless, these enemies are at the same time as insubstantial as shadows. Rather than manifestations of reality, they are elements in a story of our own creation, and as we now know, we can change our stories and our actions, and in so doing, we can change ourselves.

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