What’s your priority: validation or learning?

Is success about learning, or proving you’re smart? You can’t always do both.

It can be tempting to divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. We think a person can be one or the other, but not both. This idea can interfere with learning new things.

Unfortunately, when we think like this, we may stop pursuing essential challenges. By avoiding failure at all costs, too often we sacrifice real progress in skills just for the sake of looking good to others.

Benjamin Barber, an eminent sociologist, once said, “I divide the world into the learners and non-learners.” Do you want to learn, or do you want to look good in front of other people?

Dr. Carol Dweck talks about these conflicting priorities in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck’s research shows that children do not worry as much about making mistakes or looking incapable as adults often do. Instead, children tend to get fired up for a new fun challenge!

To me, the main difference between learners and non-learners is how they relate to their ignorance. It’s vital to embrace ignorance instead of avoiding it. Young children are often masterful learners, unafraid to confront the unknown.

“Ignorance” is defined by Merriam-Webster as “lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified.” It takes immense courage to admit that you lack knowledge or comprehension. It’s a bold, honest move in the right direction.

Admitting to ignorance is a humble attitude that runs counter-culture in academic environments where you’re expected to know-it-all.

Saying “I don’t know” or “I can’t do this” is such a healthy and critical part of learning anything. Why do we hate it so much?

Maybe we identify too much with our intellect. We think it’s a permanent fact about ourselves. We believe that smart people don’t make mistakes, and successful people never struggle or need help. Maybe that’s why people often take critical feedback too personally.

If we could only suspend our disbelief for a moment about our inability to get better at any skill, we can become better learners by embracing and acting upon feedback, even when it threatens to invalidate our perfect ideas of ourselves.