The Right Mindset for Learning Challenging New Skills

In today’s post, I wanted to pick up again on a topic I had adressed previously in The most important book to read if you want to learn Digital Humanities, Computer Science, Maths, Programming or LaTeX. The general gist was that when you want to learn a new skill which you perceive as challenging or difficult, maybe even anxiety-inducing (up to a degree that you’re seriously doubting your ability to learn it all), the most important thing to work on before doing anything else is changing your mindset. Today I will elaborate what your self-image and/or identity has to do with that and how you can use it to your advantage when learning daunting new skills.

Do you enjoy posts on learning and skill building? Let me know!

I feel that people are actually enjoying my posts on learning how to learn because they generate likes months after they have been posted. I guess there really isn’t enough material out there on how to improve your learning methods for tech subjects. So many people want to learn technical subjects nowadays who don’t come from what I have called “tech privilege”, i.e. an environment where learning those things is encouraged, supported and thus, comes naturally.

And maybe I want to share what I have learned about how to approach (tech) learning because I know a lot about it (having consumed tons of information on the topic over the last decade or so) and I remember fondly how, at the start of my studies, I drew immense inspiration from the blooger and self-help guru Steve Pavlina (his top posts and the one that probably influenced me the most).

My favourite learning how to learn resources

Today I wanted to discuss another concept in how you can change your mindset like it is suggestd in many great books on how to learn (tech skills specifically) such as

  • Carol Dweck, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (New York: Random House 2006) which was discussed in the above-mentioned blog post.
  • K. Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (Penguin: London 2016). I promised to review this for a long time and have the post finally scheduled to appear next week (Edit: It’s here.)
  • Barbara Oakley, A Mind for Numbers (Penguin: NY 2014). A “learning how to learn” book but with the twist that it focuses on technical subjects or math which require somewhat different learning strategies at times and those aren’t necessarily obvious. But it mostly discusses general concept related to learning (such as your mind switching between the “focus” and “diffuse” modes and how you can use that to you advantage). Oakley has a super-popular Coursera Course Learning How To Learn (it’s free!) and a 17min TED talk on the topic, here’s a sample chapter and a blogpost where I discussed her chapter on procrastination as it relates to PhD life.

Sorry for the little excursion, I just wanted to make sure I had imparted you with this short list of my all-time favourite “learning how to learn” resources (for tech skills specifically) before we got started on today’s point.

The best way to approach learning a challenging new skill

I guess today’s main point has something to do with yet another book. However, one which doesn’t initially scream “learning how to learn tech”: James Clear, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones (Avery 2018). This is the Atomic Habits website and here’s a video/talk by the author.

The following isn’t intended to be a detailled book review or summary – due to the immense popularity of this book, there are so many great ones already out there! (like this, this or this) – I just wanted to pick up on a point which I found relevant for learning new skills. (Because after all, the book is mainly about creating habits).

Clear explains in detail how you can form new habits and why we often fail at doing that. A useful trick is to surround yourself with visual triggers to remind you of good habits you want to build or reinforce and make bad ones really difficult, i.e. create an environment that doesn’t really afford you engaging in bad habits (such as not having junk food at home so it’s harder to succumb to cravings but leaving your guitar in plain sight so you see it each time you enter the room and thus get a reminder to practice). You can definitely use this to your advantage when learning a new skill: Fill your room with books or materials relating to the new skill and remove distractions from the place where you want to study as best as you can.

To learn XY change your identity to a “person who does XY”

But the most powerful “hack” yet is to change your identity. Don’t focus on the goal you have “getting a job as a progammer” but rather become a programmer. Not “finishing a marathon” but rather “becoming a runner”. Then you think about what such a person would do and you copy that (fake it till you make it style). Not only is this a good way to reaching your goals because it will be hard becoming a new person (which is kind of what you’re aiming for, a new “person who does XY”) while you remain the old you. You need to change your habits and your identity. And actually, changing your identity or at least trying to identify as much as you currently can with your new desired identity is a good way to keep you motivated and reinforce good habits.

I actually talked about this to my friend the Noob. She was asked to teach a class on a subject she really doesn’t like that much because she never identified with (the military). But hey, she has a PhD in her field – why should she not be able to teach it? She just struggles because she always received the subtle message that the topic isn’t “her thing” as a woman. I actually find military archaeology interesting because I grew up on a UNESCO site which was a Roman military camp and I helped out in that museum, giving guided tours when I was younger. Not that the military is my favourite topic in archaeology. But I also don’t feel this invisible barrier because my identity is somehow connected to it. I am a person who grew up on a fucking Roman military camp. Would I trust myself to teach a class on it? I’m not an archaeology Dr. so maybe I shouldn’t – but would I feel like I could? Hell yes! I have given guided tours in that museum and helped organize an exhibition there. Why should I not be capable of doing that?

What I want to say with this story from my own life is this: You need to find a detail from your new skill that you can already identify with. That can be a short little moment where you were intrigued by a maths things and web-searched it to learn more. That can be the moment where you realized XML will be integral to your future as a scholarly editor (and future DH person!). Focus on this one thing you’re already passionate about and learn a little about it. This will be easy for you as your interest is already spiked and then you have this little beacon of hope to hold on to when things get though! You already are a “person who does XY”, after all!
Like I felt that I could become a somewhat tech person because I was already doing this LaTeX thing and that’s kind of techie, after all – isn’t it?

Beware of seemingly conflicting identities and internatized stereotypes resulting in being overly self-critical

Mind you that your old identities can actually sabotage you with internalized prejudices you have from them. Like I, and also mostly everybody around me, gave me the impression throughout almost all of my youth that somehow, I couldn’t be good at tech because I was the “languages girl”. Like that’s mutually exclusive. It really isn’t but I still feel this nagging at me and I also feel that the more I engage in tech, the more I lose grip on my identity as a “langage person”. I still am and still draw immense pleasure from learning them – after the PhD I have decided that I need to make time for that again and enrolled in a Swedish course for no reason in particular. You can also find (and battle) me on Duolingo but beware that I will be annoyed at you when you obtain a higher highscore than me 😉 Contact me if you want to become Duolingo friends, then I’ll share my Duolingo username. Anyway, despite doing all this, I feel like an idiot sometimes when talking to my Latinist friends whom I perceive to be the “real” language people now and that I don’t belong because my skills aren’t as sharp when I can’t get around to translating much for longer periods of time while my colleagues are working with classical language texts every day. Same guilt for programming when I have been busy writing and haven’t coded much.

However, I’m aware this is a total luxury problem. Many people out there will likely have to work on their internalized prejudice that “somebody who looks like me / comes from where I come from etc.” just isn’t cut out for skill XY. Please don’t do this to yourself or at least fill our room with positive things to help work on this self-criticism! (I’m thinking like Penelope Garcia…) Maybe read Mel Robbins High-Five Habit to help boost your self-esteem. We all need that sometimes! (Check out my post on cheering yourself on.)

Also note how the fact that one particular identity comes more naturally to me isn’t necessarily correlated at all to my actual skill: as a full-blown archaeologist, the noob is most certainly more qualified to feel competent about Roman military than me. I assume this is at the root of the famous saying „I wish I had the confidence of a mediocre white man!“ Having the identity booster going for you doesn’t guarantee you have skills at all – but if you decide to invest in some practice, you are much more likely to see good progress than people who don’t have this privilege. So you should learn ways to sculpt your identity to your learning goals as good as possible! How to do that? Read on…

Go all-in on the identity politics

Find this little thing which will help you identify with the future you who already knows and practices the skill you’re trying to learn. In order to do that, you need to define a clear goal what type of person you want to be (like “has a job in DH working on some technical stuff”). Then you find out what skills you need to learn to get there (establish a daily routine of investing an hour a day into deliberate practice and learning, ideally first thing in the morning or as part of a challenge) and something about the routines of the people (Do they go to conferences regularly? Why don’t you just start doing that rightaway if possible?). Look at CVs of people who are already in your dream position (yes, I mean stalk them a little bit, they’re your sources of inspiration. Bonus points if you can actually see yourself in that person.) What was their trajectory?

Also, hang up a poster in your study space or buy a nerd t-shirt you can wear to sleep. It doesn’t matter if this seems silly to you. Do it anyway! You need to become comfortable seeing yourself as that kind of person and how better to do that then having your desk cluttered with reminders and seeing yourself wearing a nerdy t-shirt each time you look in the mirror? This is exactly what, for example, many young archaeology students will do: Walk around in archaeology t-shirts, plaster their homes with posters and get memorabilia from museum shops to reflect their passion – even though they’re not actually archaeologists yet (and sadly, many of them will probably never end up working in archaeology). But that’s the spirit! If you don’t believe that you can do it, who will? Those students „become archaeologists“ not because they are knighted in some weird ritual but because they attend all the classes, go to all the events, visit the museums and archaeological sites, try to travel as widely as possible and maybe get to join an actual dig some time. But the point is, they essentially become archaeologists by repeatedly doing „archaeologist things“. It’s that easy and nobody can stop you from forming your own identity like that but yourself. It takes dedication and commitment – but it’s totally feasible and the „degree of immersion“ can be adapted to what’s feasible and comfortable for you personally. But don’t be too comfortable 😉 Stay eager!

Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.

Susan Sontag

If you can or feel comfortable doing so, you might even want to broadcast your identity shift outside your private space as some sort of public commitment – such as on social media or even by bringing the nerdy shirts or memorabilia to your workplace. The more reminders the better. Having become “the person who does XY” will help you get through rough patches, too, because when everybody already knows of your commitment, you can’t really afford the social embarassment of stopping to work on the goal (although if that’s really what you want, that’s ok too, of course!). You might even find that colleagues support you on your way. Social pressure can be a good thing sometimes. It’s the difference between giving up on your goals and having a friend ask, all perplexed, “How do you mean you’re giving up on your goal just because of this minor setback?” and then getting back into the game.

This identity shift is essential because it allows you to believe in your own self-efficacy, that is the belief that you can learn or manage something if you just try and practice hard enough (“growth mindset”). Your belief that you have the power to change things, to craft your life and experience in a way that you want. Once you’ve lost that (or never had it to begin with), you will never make any progress and be prone to procrastination and fear of failure. A first step to remedying this could be to break up big goals in really small chunks and generate positive feelings of succes and achievement on those. Then you build yourself up to the next step and repeat. You need to start seeing yourself as somebody who can do this – not because of some innate talent but because you’re the type of person who does those things!

So, that’s it for today.

Maybe let me know if you like this learning related content! I think you do but it’s kind of hard to tell when you’re not saying it 😉 If so, you might also be interested in the Effective Learning category on this blog.


the Ninja

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I like LaTeX, the Humanities and the Digital Humanities. Here I post tutorials and other adventures.

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