What Can't You Learn?
I’ve been traveling this year and adding more fitness into my lifestyle. It’s been great spending more time moving my body, and also kind of hellish trying to do complete sets of pull-ups.
But you should’ve seen me when I first started. I’ve always been fairly active: I love yoga, hiking, playing in the water — normal activities. But I’d never had a dedicated workout routine with actual help from a trainer. Or even a program created by a trainer. Needless to say I was in new territory.
And I was intimidated.
Maybe I… Can’t?
I go to the gym and there are these men with biceps the size of my thigh. Most of them look like they know what they’re doing, and if they don’t, they fake it well.
And here I am, trying to figure out how to do a correct squat.
I felt out of place and nervous. Every time we went to a new gym in a new city I would pace around like a nervous house cat, trying to figure out why all the stuff has been moved around.
But mostly, I felt like I couldn’t do the exercises. At the beginning, I would be trying to get through a workout, and ended up spending almost half the time on just the warmup, trying to get my squats right.
It made me feel pretty defeated. And I started using the word “can’t” a lot.
“I can’t do these squats.”
“My body just isn’t built to do these.”
“I’m not strong enough to hold myself in this position.”
And so many of the exercises became something to be reckoned with. I started dreading any exercise with squats because I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t do them. I got in my head about it. I worried when I saw what the next set had in it.
And then that worry would trickle out into other exercises, too.
Convincing Myself That I Could
A couple months in, I realized I had a problem. I was so fixated on not being able to do it right that I was afraid to do anything at all. I tried to reason my way into avoidance. I would have put in two months of hard work just to be derailed by something I couldn’t do.
I had to make a change.
I practiced squatting a bunch of different ways: doing a deadbug pose from yoga, holding on for dear life while in a low squat, lots of ankle mobility exercises, and hip opening stretches.
After about a week of this, I started to realize, I could learn to do it. My body was built just fine, I was strong enough, and I could do the squats safely as long as I was really mindful. The real problem had been that I was just determined to stand in my own way.
I was sure that I couldn’t do this right because of how my body was built.
And it might seem like I overreacted. You might be thinking that I’m just an overly self-conscious worrier.
But how many times do you stop yourself? How many times do you say:
“I can’t figure out how to do this.”
“I have no idea.”
“This just isn’t something I can do.”
How many times do you say “I can’t…” and stop yourself before you even try?
Two months ago I was convinced my body was incapable of doing this at all. But now, I can do squats with body weight, squats with free weights, squats with plates, and squats with barbells.
The real problem the entire time was my mindset.
I had to get out of the fixed mindset of I’m not someone who can do this, and start realizing that I can always learn to be better.
This idea of a growth mindset was introduce by Carol Dweck, who found that a fixed or growth mindset has a huge affect on our identity and personality.
Anything Can Be Learned
Learning new things, by definition, can be difficult. We’ve got to figure out a new way of doing things, or worse, get rid of bad habits. It can be hard. And part of the reason we get so fixated on “can’t” is because at the beginning, we’re not that good at it. As we get older, we start to assume we have innate talents: I’m a visual learner, or I’m a natural writer.
Probably not true unless you’re some sort of child prodigy, and even then, you’ve still got to practice — a lot.
You may have an innate interest in writing, which makes you stick through the hard parts of learning how to write, but you’re not a natural. You’re good because you practice, and you practice because you enjoy practicing.
So, by that logic, you can learn things that you think you’re bad at.
Everything you’ve learned up to this point in your life, you learned because of some type of growth mindset.
When you were two and learning to talk, you didn’t think to yourself, “I just can’t say the word ambulance and sword”. Instead, you learned by blabbering, mimicking, and generally talking in gibberish like a little, tiny, chubby-faced drunk person.
Over time, you were able to make sounds that correctly resembled words people knew, and then you could even string those words together so that people could understand what was going on in your mind.
But all of that required a growth mindset without you even realizing it.
So I’m betting if you can learn to walk, talk, clothe, and feed yourself, you can learn a new skill with the help of a teacher, tutorials, or tools.
A Growth Mindset Sets You Up for Personal Success
We’re all working toward achieving personal success. That might mean getting promoted to a top position in your company, releasing a new product that you built, or fulfilling your dream of traveling.
Regardless of what your definition of personal success, a growth mindset helps you get there.
You’ll be more motivated to learn, knowing that new skills can be acquired.
You’ll be more resilient to setbacks, because you understand that this is just part of the learning process.
And instead of judging yourself based on your superiority to others, you’ll care more about whether you’re better today than you were yesterday.
That sounds like a much more fulfilling life to me.