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Is making mistakes wrong?

Part 2 learning series: learning anxiety

The ongoing changes in society and organizations force us to keep developing ourselves. While ‘willingness to learn’ and ‘hunger to learn’ push us to learn (cfr. read our previous blog), a couple of hurdles that hold back a learning culture within companies can be identified. Learning anxiety, for example, is one of the reasons why we don’t acquire skills. In this blog, we’ll guide you trough some of the major causes of learning anxiety, how to tackle them and how to stimulate a learning culture within the company.

Let’s get started by identifying the main three hurdles of successful learning.  

1. Leaving the comfort zone

Learning forces us to leave our comfort zone and to take a step into the unknown, which creates feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. The unknown can instill fear in us, just as well as leaving the familiar behind can arouse feelings of fear. This is also called ‘loss aversion’: losses loom larger than gains in general.

2. Making mistakes is wrong

Making mistakes is part of learning. They are in fact an essential feedback loop in the learning process, as we learn from mistakes. However, our education system punishes making mistakes. From an early age we are taught that we should not make mistakes.

3. The expert status syndrome

Experts receive recognition for having knowledge in a particular domain. But when new subject matters arise we have to familiarise ourselves with the material again, which means that we’re at the bottom of the expertise ladder. Thanks to our accumulated experiences, we will climb up the ladder again, but perhaps also not. Anyhow, we’ve lost our expert status for a while. And that’s why some cling to their current expertise for too long, even if the expert domain becomes less relevant or is replaced by new ones.

Fixed versus growth mindset

The fear of making mistakes is reinforced when there’s a fixed instead of a growth mindset. According to Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: Changing the way you think to fulfil your potential, people with a fixed mindset believe that abilities are mostly innate and interpret failure as the lack of necessary basic abilities. They experience failures as a judgement and as a devaluation of their personality and intelligence. As a result, they avoid making errors and learning new subject-matters solely for that reason.  

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe their success is based on hard work, learning, and perseverance. Being convinced that their skills and competences can be developed over time, people with a growth mindset consider failures and problems as a growing opportunity. Despite whatever lack of success they may have, they appreciate to learn from any difficulty.

How to deal with learning anxiety

But how can we tackle learning anxiety and eventually start learning? Ideally, we should be able to learn in a ‘safe’ environment. Within the domain of IT, this is sometimes referred to as a ‘sandbox’, a place where exploring and experimenting is allowed. If a sandbox environment is not an option, learning step by step, whereby the impact of errors can be limited and remedied quickly, is a possible way out. In situations with no place for exploration, the necessary safety measures (i.e., quality gates, meticulous process management, knowledge assurance, peer reviews, mitigation plans and roll-back systems) will make the risk manageable.

The key question

Mindsets are an important part of our personality; but we can change them. When we’re aware of the existance of fixed and growth mindsets, we can start thinking and reacting in new ways. Failures can be painful experiences, but they don’t define us. Even though learning anxiety can be explained, giving in to it is not an option. If we do not continue to learn, we deprive ourselves from new development opportunities and run the risk of missing the train of society and economy.

But what happens when the safety zone has moved but your comfort zone has not? It’s the question Seth Godin asks in his book The Icarus Deception. How to avoid this by proactive learning, we will answer in our next blog.