At the dawn of middle age, I feel like I’m just coming into my real self. “I’ve always been a middle-aged dad at heart” has become one of my go-to icebreakers. Many things – like having a little bit of money, trimming down social circles to true friends, knowing who I am and what I like – feel great. But the hardest thing is maybe impostor syndrome. Why does it feel so difficult to learn new things once you’re grown?
We’ve already climbed Mt Stupid
Behold, the Dunning Kruger effect, graphed:
In our early 20s, we’re barely climbing Mt. Stupid. We literally don’t know what we don’t know – or how much we don’t know. Your second or third year of undergrad, you know more than you’ve ever known! You’re a genius!
This gives you the confidence to try new things. Learning happens because you’re open to experimentation. You don’t feel embarrassed by your crappy posters because you literally don’t know how crappy they are.
But if you’re smart, something happens around the time you enter your final year of undergrad. You start realizing there’s an entire world of knowledge you don’t possess.
And with this, you start feeling a little insecure.
That’s good! That pushes (most of) us to continue learning more and improving the skills we have.
So why does this make learning new skills hard?
It’s because we remember the feeling of falling into the valley. We remember the discomfort of realizing we weren’t as smart as we thought we were.
There’s a little bit of transfer happening where our acknowledgement of our limited knowledge applies to everything. Not just the subjects where we formerly counted ourselves experts.
So our brains, trying to keep us safe, warn us against trying anything:
“You’re not as smart as you think, let’s avoid this entire awkwardness and stick with what we do know.”
The challenge of learning in your 30s (and beyond, I’d presume), is pushing back against our brains. We have to live in that space of discomfort long enough to actually learn something new.
We have to be willing to endure that discomfort when we’d rather get a dopamine hit. “Wouldn’t you rather check Facebook or watch Netflix or pursue a billion other distractions?” our brains say. (These distractions feel good, even just a little, making them a much more attractive alternative to feeling dumb while we learn.)
So what do we do with this?
The reason I’m sharing this on a marketing blog is that marketing is constantly changing. Good marketers realize that no matter how deeply they master a tactic, marketing tactics get stale faster than any other industry. Our knowledge of Facebook ads or Snapchat strategies or “what is a tik tok” ages like milk.
So instead of focusing so much on the latest tactics and trends, we need to focus on things that don’t change.
Why are Bible stories still so popular today? It’s because the fundamental programming of humans hasn’t really changed for thousands of years. We still make the same mistakes as ever.
A study of any ancient literature or scripture can reveal remarkable insights about the modern day. I love this verse from Acts that succinctly captures human nature:
(For all the Athenians and strangers which were there spent their time in nothing else, but either to tell, or to hear some new thing.)
It’s been 2000 years, and people are still obsessed with hearing “some new thing.”
I think this means we should focus on understanding humans, not learning the latest tactics.
- What drives the humans we serve to make decisions?
- What do they desire? What do they fear?
- How do we tell a compelling story that builds a relationship of trust with them?
Spending time understanding how humans think, make decisions, act against their own self-interests, etc. helps us craft a better story. A more resonate message that has the opportunity to amplify itself beyond our network.
Cool, fine – how do I learn Mandarin in my 30s?
Back to the original point, “Why is it so hard to learn something later in life?”
Based on the constant warnings in ancient texts against pride, I think the key to lifelong learning is humility.
Humility is acknowledging that we don’t know it all yet.
In our work building websites, it’s knowing that we can’t assume what’s important to our audiences. We need to speak with them with open minds, beginner’s minds, and be brave enough to humbly listen.
But it’s also attaining a deeper level of humility. That voice in our head that says, “You don’t know much, and it’s going to hurt to learn, so let’s watch YouTube”? That voice is coming from a place of absolute knowledge. It’s speaking to you from its own Mt. Stupid.
The humble perspective might be more like this:
“You might not know this yet, and it might take a while to learn. But we don’t know until we try, and maybe you’re good at it!”
There’s confidence in humility, in kind of a counter-intuitive way.
Audiences are getting tired of false bravado and empty gurus.
Our own minds are tired of false bravado, of hiding from the humble truth.
So let’s stop pretending we know everything already, and be humble enough to learn something new. (And be humble enough to tell our brains that it’s okay we’re not experts yet.)