5 Ways to Gain Satisfaction and Success with a Learner's Mind

I've always been a worrier.  As the oldest child, I was never able to follow in anyone's footsteps.  I always felt like I was heading into "unknown territory" alone, with no one to rely on or ask questions of.  Maybe I was being fanciful, but I wound up feeling that I had to anticipate and figure out everything ahead of time so I wouldn't mess up.  This belief made me pay attention to details and become a problem-solver, but it also made me a nervous perfectionist. 

Once I figured something out, or felt like I was pretty good at something, I clung to that.  I liked feeling that I knew what I was doing.  I was able to live with the fact that there were plenty of things I wasn't any good at as long as I had one or two areas where I felt competent.  And if I wound up being better at something than most of my peers, I let that activity become my focus.

That's how I became a musician, specifically a singer.  Being an operatic soprano was essential to my self-image for many years.

man taking notes for study

How we limit ourselves

I think this is what most of us do.  It's how we define our passions and how we find our place in the world.  I don't think it's a bad behavior, but it can be limiting.

As we continue to cling to that feeling of knowing what we're doing – even basing our self-image and self-respect upon our competence in one area – we become afraid to change the status quo, because that creates the risk of failure.  Fear of messing up keeps us in place, unwilling to explore new possibilities.

We wait to try something new until we feel ready, until we feel certain.  And when that feeling doesn't come, we're stuck.

In fact, we could be prevented from even greater achievements because of what we already know and feel comfortable with.

How to grow

The challenge is to return to where we were as children, when everything was new.  When we were children, everything had to be figured out, practiced, and slowly mastered.  We had to find mentors and ask questions.  We had to grow past our incompetence.

This is a humbling process, especially if we've been used to a high level of success.

Part of the problem is that our culture doesn't really celebrate learners beyond a certain age.  We say that we value trying new things and being life-long learners, but the reality is that we don't have much patience with an adult who is starting over in a completely new area.  We are very quick to point out errors and miscalculations in others and in ourselves.  We don't really give ourselves much room to experiment and grow.

Leo Babauta, who blogs at zenhabits.net, writes that "we are held back from creating the life we want, from our highest purpose, from our greatest growth and learning, by what we know....  Obliterate what you know, to make room for what you might learn."

How might we do that?

5 tips for doing something new

1.  Trust your gut.

Look around at your home and your life choices.  Are the decisions you've made your own or based on someone else's influence?  Are you chasing career or other goals because that's just the road you've traveled for the last several years, or are you following your own values and interests?  Are your choices designed to draw approval from others, or are they a true expression of yourself?

Take time to get in touch with your inner self through prayer, meditation, or journaling.  The next time you make a decision, let it come from the real you.

2.  Imagine.

If you were going to remake yourself and your image, what would you choose?  Maybe you'd go from being a regional opera performer and oratorio soloist to a blogger and author with a worldwide audience (like me).  Maybe you would like to try becoming a top real estate agent, a personal trainer, a restaurateur, a fashion designer, or a professional home declutterer and organizer.  What would you do if you didn't fear failure?

3.  Start small.

It might not be necessary to begin by throwing out everything you know.  Start your learning process with something small.  For example, prepare a new recipe.  Sign up for an art class at the community center.  Enter that 5K race.  If you don't usually take leadership roles, volunteer to head a committee or make a presentation.  Step outside your comfort zone, even if it's just a little bit.

4.  Create freedom.

It is much harder to sail into the unknown if you're towing a load of debt or a houseful of clutter behind you.  Resist buying stuff you don't need, make a plan to pay off debt, and take the first steps toward living with less.  Begin new habits that will get you to your ultimate goal.

5.  Experiment.

Learning is a complex activity, and making mistakes goes with the territory.  Instead of fearing your errors, view them as opportunities to exercise your intelligence and determination.  

After all, the most brilliant people know that they don't know everything.  They're the ones who ask questions and conduct experiments.  "The true test of intelligence," wrote educator John Holt,* "is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don't know what to do."

* This blog is reader-supported.  If you buy through my links, I may earn a small commission.

A million excuses

There are a million excuses for avoiding change, because change is hard.  We can always come up with reasons not to try.  But the resilience you gain and the new horizons that open up will be worth it.

Related article: How to Recover from Winning

Updated July 2023


  1. Tip 1 I have been trying to figure out some of my whys. Talk about journaling prompts! I enjoy your writing. Glad you changed careers from singer to blogger.

    1. Thank you! I'm really pleased if something I write is helpful or useful to you. I appreciate the comment.


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