Stop working for gold stars
After living in Baton Rouge for nine years of my childhood, my parents informed me that we would be returning to my birthplace — Bangkok, Thailand. This was problematic for your normal why-are-you-ruining-my-life pre-teen reasons, but also because I never had any interest in learning Thai. So equipped with only how to say “bathroom” (hong nam) and “not too spicy” (mai ped), I was enrolled in an international school in Bangkok where classes would be taught in English. But two months before school began, I learned that since I was considered a Thai national, it was an academic requirement to take Thai — and at my appropriate grade level.
I want to say that I tried. My type-A academic self kicked her butt into gear. I worked with a tutor every day that summer and went from not being able to read or write Thai to being able to do both at a second grade level. But then once school started, I was plunged into a 7th grade literature course fully taught in Thai.
It was an extremely demoralizing experience — to have made so much progress over the summer so quickly, and then receive Fs on assignments because I struggled to understand what the questions on my homework were asking, let alone formulate a thorough critical analysis of characters in the text. Every time I walked into that classroom or picked up a book to do my homework, I felt impossibly behind. Even when I studied my hardest and tried my hardest, I fell short of expectation. Every time I turned something in, I was laughed at for my mistakes or the simplicity of my writing. And being in a class with students who had spent their whole lives in Thailand, I grew used to the feeling of being the stupidest person in the room.
I felt stupid, even though I knew I wasn’t. I felt humiliated and shamed for trying to learn something for the first time. I felt like it was my fault that I’d been reading the Boxcar Children instead of studying Thai in my childhood. I felt like it was their fault, for not understanding where I was coming from, from holding me to a standard that I should already just know these things. The shame of not knowing made me angry. And that anger convinced me I didn’t need to learn. So, I did the bare minimum. I begged and pleaded with my teacher for leniency. My classmates took pity on me and helped me with my homework. And I scraped together a passing grade — but I can assure you that I did not learn much in that class except how to cut your losses.
I stopped wanting to learn because I felt small every time I tried.
The other day, I turned to a friend and sighed, “I feel like I am so ignorant about the world. And every time I learn something, I discover yet another thing I am ignorant about. But to keep learning, I think I need to first stop feeling shame for what I don’t know.”
Our world feels like it has a steep learning curve these days. The cost of ignorance is high, and the list of what we need to know feels unending. And we’re all in different places in our learning. I have friends who have been learning for a long time, who are miles ahead of me in certain topics. I have friends who have just begun learning about those topics but have spent their years becoming thoughtful experts in other topics. We are all in different places in our learning. And yet there is something we can all learn. I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to continue being a learner, especially when there are no gold stars to earn anymore.
The first is this: do not let shame be your motivator.
Whether it is your own shame at not knowing something or the shame others dole out because you don’t know something they think you should — neither are helpful. You can recognize shame when you feel dismissed, like the reason you don’t know something is because there’s something inherently wrong with you. Shame is a dunce cap that sticks us in a corner and tells us that we’re stupid and that’s just the way it is.
I should know better and you should know better are two phrases that instantly shut down any desire to do deep learning. They may motivate us for a time, to try harder, to prove others wrong, to prove ourselves wrong — but it’s empty learning. It’s learning to pass a test. It’s learning to look less stupid. It’s not learning with the purpose to change. And it will run out of steam, quickly.
The second thing it takes to keep learning: accept that you are responsible for your own education.
Being taught and learning are not the same things. Someone can teach you something all you want — and a great teacher can make learning so much easier. But at the end of the day, you are responsible for what you know and what you don’t. That’s why when someone hurts you and says to you, “Sorry, I didn’t know,” the words are a nice sentiment but never a satisfying apology.
You’re responsible for the decisions you make as a result of what you know and what you don’t know. It’s why people study card counting and probabilities when gambling — there will always be things you don’t know, but the more you can increase what you do know, the better chance you’ll have of your desired outcome.
And lastly, realize learning is not a checkbox.
It’s not a level you hit in a videogame of enlightenment, although it’s tempting to want to play for some label or trophy so people think you’ve arrived. Learning is an act that any of us can choose to do, at any time.
What if we de-shamed learning? What if, whenever we encounter something we don’t yet know (which we inevitably will), or someone tells us that people like us just don’t understand (which someone inevitably will), it’s no longer a personal offense. It’s simply an assessment of how much we currently know. And whether or not it’s an accurate assessment, it’s something we can choose to investigate. It’s an invitation to stay curious. It’s an opportunity to say,
“You’re right, I don’t know a lot of things. But that’s why I’ve chosen to be a learner.”
I can’t control what I’ve been taught. But I can control what I choose to learn. And that knowledge is powerful when we let it settle deep in our bones. It will make us braver and kinder each time someone tries to make us feel small. We will be able to shed our anxieties of the unknown. We will push past the feelings of failure and inadequacy that hold us back. And life will no longer look like a test we’ll inevitably fail, but an adventure that beckons us deeper and further into understanding.