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Stimulus Understanding

‘A man doesn’t learn to understand anything unless he loves it.’ Goethe

There is a guy banging his head against a brick wall. When asked why he is banging his head against the brick wall, he pauses and says because ‘it feels so good when I stop.’ It is a silly story of truth for millions. We continue to bang our heads against the same brick walls, partly because it feels good when we stop, but also because we don’t know how to do it differently. More often than not, our response to life stimulus remains the same. In order for any stimulus to really move us into a new place we have learn how to think in a new way and risk giving up the old brick wall.

In one of my favorite reads of late, Stumbling on Happiness, author Daniel Gilbert

gives a thorough understanding of the way we are fooled not just by our memory of what has happened but also by our imagination when we project what will happen in the future and how we will feel about it. We humans don’t really learn from each other. Whether it is planning to have a child or starting a new business, we simply refuse to believe that other people’s experience will inform our own. I remember distinctly the advice I got from another local small business owner when I was starting out and I was convinced at the time that my experience would be different. Same for parenting; questions answered from more experienced parents just sounded jaded; little did I know how soon my own responses would resemble theirs.

The reason that we can’t learn from other’s experience is because it is the experience itself which is the teacher. We retain less than 5% of what we are told, (lecturers take note), 10% of what we read, 30% of what we are shown, but what we teach we actually own. This of course begs the question; what is the point of education to learn or to teach? As far as life lessons go, the answer is one and the same. Our education in life is at once student and teacher. This too is the rub, for how do we expand our capacity to imagine and re-think our life and relationships in a new way, when our personal experience is not broad enough to help us out of where we are stuck?

Learning is a two step process- discovery and mastery. We all have innate capacity for both. Keeping our capacity for discovery vital is one key to lifelong learning and the ability to make different choices with the same stimulus. Children have a penchant for discovery: that is what their days are about. Adults can lose sight of this part of the learning process as they strive for mastery in their life, which is the other half of learning. Mastery is essential; it is where our experience teaches both ourselves and others. It builds our sense of self and as adults defines our identity. But without the openness to discovery, mastery can turn into a short walk to a brick wall. In relationships it often looks like how we leave. Love demands that we continuously discover the other and our relationship over and over again.

President Obama was quoted recently on what keeps his relationship with his wife so vital. ‘Sometimes when we’re lying together, I look at her and I feel dizzy with the realization that here is another distinct person from me, who has memories, origins, thoughts, feelings that are different from my own. That tension between familiarity and mystery meshes something strong between us. Even if one builds a life together based on trust, attentiveness and mutual support, I think that it is important that a partner continues to surprise.’ Recognizing the mystery that exists in every relationship is another way of defining a learning life.

It is true that we don’t really understand anything until we love it, which is the continuous dance between discovery and mastery in the hours we spend at what matters most to us.