Learn Vs. Taught: Why and How Your Brain Is Holding You Back

I don’t know about you, but I am a self-prescribed #personalgrowth junkie. I am a learner, a reader, a studier. I love new articles on anything that can make me be a better husband, father, business-person. Anything and everything that can give me an edge or a competitive advantage or make more intelligent around topics that are popular or important, I want it.

Maybe you are the same way. Maybe you, like me, will willingly read blog posts and articles and books for hours on end and filter out what we deem as practical, useful, believable information and store it away as wisdom to be accessed in the future.

My problem when someone tries to teach me something, as I have identified it at least, comes with the way I naturally bristle. By bristle, I mean, my brain automatically puts up a giant wall built of cynicism and distrust anytime someone starts trying to tell me something they know that I don’t. It’s as if my brain goes into fight or flight mode and retreats back into my amygdala and hippocampus, which is exactly the opposite of what I should be doing. I should be activating and engaging my prefrontal cortex and advanced thinking brain to better understand, judge and engage with what is being presented to me. Instead, I find myself throwing up this defensive wall and I simultaneously go on the offensive trying to poke holes in whatever is being spun my way.

So, why do I do this? Why does my brain automatically distrust people (often friends and family) face to face but give preferential processing and the benefit of the doubt to written words from strangers? We are quick to trust the people driving on the roads around us and the TSA security guards at the airport to screen the bad guys, yet we second guess coworkers at every turn often about minuscule details, and fill in unknown gaps with our spouse and family members with negative assumptions. We naturally choose to deteriorate trust with those close to us while simultaneously elevating trust towards strangers.

This Huffington Post article sums these things up nicely in talking about the amount of trust required in our daily lives for the world to function normally. (Don’t even get me started on how this intentional sabotaging of trust is playing out in the political arena in the world today) The bottom line is “If we paused to consider how many times we place our lives in the hands of strangers, we would go mad…It’s easier to look at a statistic like one in 75 drivers is drunk, and trust the odds, than it is to look at another person and say, ‘I trust you with my life.”

So now I need to break this down into how I am personally hindering my own growth by viewing the people around me this way. The first step is acknowledging that I have a problem. Check. Next step is identifying causation, or at the very least, correlation.

To be taught implies the action of an outside force (often a person) which does the teaching. To learn implies that the learner chose to learn by and of his own efforts, probably without a specific teacher. Based on this fact, I can identify that the problem, or at least a major part of the problem must stem from my personal pride. So, as someone who desires to be a great leader and influencer to shape this world into a better place, I must be self aware. I must knowingly address my pride when someone starts talking to me to offer advice, knowledge, a new idea, or an alternate point of view.

To be a great leader is to understand and apply otherness, to be self aware and open to correction. To be open to being taught by others and not just relying on my own abilities to be a self-learner. Certainly there are some filtering advantages that we prefer as self-learners but we also miss out on the growth that comes through being challenged and going through productive and healthy conflict with fellow humans on our journey. Even Winston Churchill struggled with this:

“I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” — Winston Churchill

So, if these are some things that are or were holding you back, I am curious what you are doing now to address them? As a learner who wants to hear from real people, what do you do daily to engage those who are offering up advice and correction in order to allow it to grow you as a person and leader?