Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


If Learning Is a Natural Skill, Why Is It So Hard?

Have we become fearful of learning? Where is our curiosity?

Are we as individuals and companies afraid of learning? How did we become this way? What has happened to our natural instincts of curiosity and survival?

Because we think it is. Because we have been trained to think it is. Because we have been inundated by the fears of people who look back on their lives with regret over lessons they hadn’t learned. What do we associate with these feelings of fear?

As a university professor, I am delighted when students are eager to learn. A lively conversation with students, in or out of the classroom, can be intellectually and emotionally stimulating, as their natural curiosity expresses itself.

At the same time, I am disturbed that so many seem to resist. What are they resisting? Learning itself carries no risk, no burden. What are they afraid of? Are they afraid they can’t learn, or maybe that they can’t learn enough? Where would they get such ideas about themselves? The only answer seems to be some emotional baggage.

Curiosity is a basic instinct we share with all animals, from ants to elephants. Isn’t curiosity a first step toward learning? When we are puzzled by something new and different, doesn’t that challenge us to stretch our ability to understand? Curiosity is tied to another basic instinct, that of survival. When we encounter something unfamiliar, we can label that: “friendly”, neutral, or “unfriendly”. Will it help or harm us, or will it have no significant effect on our lives? Fortunately, most of what is around us is relatively neutral.

Is our feeling of being overwhelmed by externalities, by the complexity of our modern world, including technology, making us less curious? Do we associate our perception of unfamiliar things with our interpretation of them as being potentially harmful? Do we shrink away, without thinking, because we are unable to make sense of the new input? Are we projecting our fear onto the world? What do we learn when this happens?

If this is how our students are reacting, isn’t this a sign that we are not encouraging them to develop courage? We ask them to learn increasingly large amounts of knowledge, of greater complexity, with a greater sense of urgency than ever before. How can they learn the tools, i.e., courage, they need to accomplish this task?

The same situation is reflected in corporate organizations. Companies that want to focus on their comfort zones, on a manufactured ecosystem over which they feel they have control, are exactly those that are ripe for disruptive innovation. Innovation happens when the entrepreneurial mindset perceives new opportunities. Often those opportunities are exactly in the blindspot of some competitors.

Entrepreneurs are the most passionate learners! They also tend to be astute observers of reality, of weaknesses and faulty assumptions, including in themselves. They are intensely curious about why things are the way they are. They constantly challenge the status quo with questions like: ”Why?” and “Why not?” Are they fearless? Not always, but they do have the courage to explore what they don’t know. They intuitively sense that is a direction for growth. The result is a drive to learn, to probe, to engage. For them, the payoff makes the effort worthwhile. But are they driven only by the capitalist motive? Why do they persist in this behavior?

What about the process of curiosity itself? When we exercise curiosity, our brain releases dopamine, a biochemical neurotransmitter. One of the side effects of dopamine is that our brain interprets that as pleasure. The result is a positive feedback loop: Curiosity => dopamine => pleasure => curiosity.

Isn’t this where we all began as children? We took delight in every new thing we encountered. Nothing was good or bad - until we experienced pain directly or a parent came along and shouted: “NO! Don’t touch that!” By instinct, we were eager to learn about the world. When something was very complex, we would puzzle over it for a while, then eventually give up, perhaps to return when we had accumulated more knowledge and experience and could see the problem differently.

Isn’t this what learning should be? An endless journey of exploration?

Have our good intentions to protect our children actually contributed to disempowering them as young adults? Have we created conditions which suppress their natural urge to be curious to the point where they have forgotten how to learn, what it means to learn effectively on their own?

More from Po Chi Wu Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today