Thursday, November 15, 2012

ego kills learning

I had a scary experience. I met a closed mind.

"Leave your ego at the door" - motto of many BJJ schools.

"Leave your ego at home" should apply to horse people. Too much ego is involved when we work with our horses, when we go to clinics, when we go to competitions and when we go out riding with our mates.

According to the Oxford Dictionaries, ego is: "a person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance". We all have it. Some people claim to have none, but I believe it's part of how we define ourselves, and that in itself is a necessary part of us being who we are. I know this is getting into pretty deep philosophical waters (where clearly, I'm out of my depth..). But I posit there is a "healthy" level of ego which everyone should have. Too little is bad and has it's own problems. Too much ego, on the other hand, can lead to conditions such as "egotistical" (a.h.), an inflated sense of self-importance, self-delusion, arrogance, disrespect for other human beings and that most horrible of all problems called a closed mind.

The strange thing is that an oversized ego and inflated sense of self-importance is often associated with a certain fears. Most often, the fear of losing face. Often, this seems underpinned by a lack of expertise or understanding. So on the one hand, there is the need to look good, while on the other hand, there is feel of uncertainty. So what does the big ego demand? A cover-up. No way is it possible to admit that there may be something missing. In fact, the really deluded ego doesn't see the gaping hole in knowledge. How is the cover up achieved? By BS mostly. The ego-driven person lies to self first and foremost, and everyone else also. They will divert attention away, point the accusing finger at their horse, their teacher, the circumstances, their friends or any bystanders, anything. The ego driven person thinks and proclaims they never err, never make a wrong decision. Therefore, they cannot accept responsibility for anything they say or do and choose to play the blame game.

As they already know everything and make no mistakes, there is then no need to attempt to learn anything new. In fact, this reinforces the whole closed mind scenario, because no new facts need to be absorbed, critically evaluated and there is no need to change as a result. A closed mind sometimes reacts with hostility to new ideas. It's like a clam that snaps shut. The only reason I can figure for that hostility is that niggledy uncertainly in the back of the mind about things not being quite perfect. After all, if all was truly as magnificent as the big ego tells itself, then there would be no need for hostility. Magnanimous indifference yes, but not hostility.

All things are not black and white, and on the ego scale, most of us fall part way between too little and too much. Sometimes, we just have a little too much, and we may be able to tune it down when we realise its an issue.

But let's look at learning.

What is a prerequisite to learning? Surely an open mind: a willingness to listen to new ideas and concepts. A willingness to immerse ourselves in the material presented, to critically evaluate what is offered, to try out, test and make mistakes with the new stuff until we find those parts that work for us. Then we integrate that new knowledge and the associated skills with our current way of doing things. And as a final step, we give credit to our teachers, mentors, colleagues, training partners and whoever else helped us to grow.

To begin with, we need to realise that we don't know everything, and that we need to fill a void. Not with hollow fluff about our own self importance, but with real knowledge from people who have gone down that road before and who have things to teach.

The typical learning journey has several important stages. Psychologist have come up with four distinct steps (from Wikipedia):
  1. Unconscious incompetence
    The individual does not understand or know how to do something and does not necessarily recognize the deficit. They may deny the usefulness of the skill. The individual must recognise their own incompetence, and the value of the new skill, before moving on to the next stage.[2] The length of time an individual spends in this stage depends on the strength of the stimulus to learn.[3]
  2. Conscious incompetence
    Though the individual does not understand or know how to do something, he or she does recognize the deficit, as well as the value of a new skill in addressing the deficit. The making of mistakes can be integral to the learning process at this stage.[4]
  3. Conscious competence
    The individual understands or knows how to do something. However, demonstrating the skill or knowledge requires concentration. It may be broken down into steps, and there is heavy conscious involvement in executing the new skill.[3]
  4. Unconscious competence
    The individual has had so much practice with a skill that it has become "second nature" and can be performed easily. As a result, the skill can be performed while executing another task. The individual may be able to teach it to others, depending upon how and when it was learnt.
The way I interpret this progression is that the closed mind is stuck in stage one. They don't recognise their own incompetence. This precludes them from moving on to the stages where learning really takes place and where they would have the opportunity to develop basic skills and eventually, mastery.

So the next time you hear someone tell you "I understand", "I know", "I see" when clearly, they do not, then be aware that you may not be able to help that person. At least not immediately. Most people are able to change though. I've certainly seen some pretty amazing transformations, and I'm an optimist. Sometimes, just by quietly continuing to do what I do, and offering knowledge in a non-confrontational manner, ego barriers drop. At other times, I just walk away, because I'm not prepared to waste my time. Or suffer the thrashing around of a closed mind which acts like a cornered wild beast when confronted with hard to deny truths.

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