Why it doesn’t pay to be too smart when you’re learning

August 28, 2013

How quickly do you learn? Are you one of those people who picks things up with ease? Feel slightly smug in training courses? Don’t need anything explaining twice? Well here’s a way of thinking about learning that might give you pause for thought. From my favourite assessment measure, the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP), comes the distinction between ‘Quick Insight’ and ‘Gradual Improvement’ learning.

Quick insight learning is when you pick things up through learning a new theory or by putting ideas together to come up with one of those ‘Aha’ moments (as I did when I came up with this blog post). Gradual improvement is where skills and knowledge are acquired more slowly through practice. We all use both but people often have an aptitude, and a preference, for one over the other. Perhaps unsurprisingly, bright people often prefer quick insight learning.

Now I confess I’ve always prided myself on being a fairly smart cookie and was pleased when the CPP confirmed my aptitude for quick insight learning. Give me a bit of challenging theory (OK maybe not physics) and I’m in my element. As is often the case, though, pride came before a fall. In my case, I took up drawing. I lapped up ideas about colour theory, negative space and the rules of perspective. But did that mean I could draw? Not a chance.

When you can’t do it all in your head

What I’d overlooked is that when you introduce a physical element into whatever you’re trying to learn, quick insight is of limited use. Art, crafts, sport, music, cooking, dancing – many of the things which make life worthwhile – all require a hefty dollop of gradual improvement learning.Image Even if you’re a dedicated workaholic, who shuns anything as frivolous as a hobby, work related skills, such as public speaking, require practice.

I meet a lot of quick insight learners who – once they’ve swiftly absorbed the concept – say they don’t have the patience for gradual improvement learning. In my experience, this masks a deeper truth. People who think of themselves as smart struggle to tolerate the discomfort of being inept. I used to cry with frustration in art classes at my inability to translate the image in my head into an image on paper.

Missing out the uncomfortable bit

You may have come across the four stages of learning, which we move through when we learn:

  • Unconscious incompetence – I don’t even know that I don’t know that
  • Conscious incompetence – I know I can’t do that
  • Conscious competence – I can do this but I really have to think about it
  • Unconscious competence – I don’t even have to think about this any more

Quick insight learning allows people to jump straight from ‘unconscious incompetence’ to at least a degree of ‘conscious competence’. You don’t know something, then you learn about it, assimilate it into your mental model of the world and you’re good to go. Say you discover a new way of categorising your customer base. You grasp the idea, apply it to your marketing database and a whole new way of thinking about opportunities emerges. I’ve seen people retrospectively beat themselves up for not already knowing the thing they just learned – ‘How could I have been so ignorant/naïve? Why did I not see this before?’ – but they do this from the security of knowing that they’ve got it now. Their view of themselves as capable remains intact.

Acknowledging your incompetence

Compare that with sitting at a piano wanting to play Rachmaninoff yet struggling to master Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. Now you really have to face your own incompetence and that can bring up a lot of uncomfortable feelings, from frustration to embarrassment and even shame. And that’s when many people give up.Image I’ve met a lot of successful, capable people who admit that they avoid even trying things that they don’t think they’ll be any good at. I sometimes wonder whether this is why the stereotypical geek is often bad at sport – used to picking things up quickly and progressing from there, they don’t put in the hours of practice that it takes to master a physical skill, especially if it didn’t come naturally to them in the first place.

Two ways of seeing progress

Of course, gradual improvement plays a part in developing skills which you may acquire through quick insight. After 12 years, my interpretation of someone’s cognitive profile from the CPP is much more nuanced than it was when I first started using it. But I only realise that looking back. At any given moment over those years, I felt confident that I knew what I was doing.

With skills that require gradual improvement learning it’s the other way around. You have to start knowing what you’re aiming for, which may seem almost unattainable, and be satisfied with the small steps you take along the way. Mastering Twinkle Twinkle Little Star has to become a cause for celebration not proof that you still can’t play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto.

Hubris and humility

In my case, I stuck with the art, at least for a while, and eventually produced something I was prepared to give house room.  This image of droopy sunflowers hangs above the kitchen table Imageand, while it may not be Van Gogh, I am proud of the rusty enamel jug. In the end, though, I didn’t have the perseverance to keep it going, unlike my husband who has a far greater capacity for practice and whose paintings adorn our walls.

But learning to draw taught me a lot about learning in general and about patience and humility, lessons I’m trying to put into practice as I attempt to learn mindfulness meditation. So if you are a smart, fast-learner and you really want to stretch yourself, I can wholeheartedly recommend taking up something you can only develop through practice – cake decorating, flamenco dancing, playing the trombone, doesn’t really matter what. You may be surprised what you learn about yourself in the process.

Photo credits:

Alex E Proimo

Fabrice Rose

Charlie Day

David Ringsell

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  1. whitecottage1 September 3, 2013 at 6:38 pm - Reply

    Great post. I’ve recently been taking up drawing again and am amazed at how crap I am. When I did Art A level I seem to remember I was quite good. I even illustrated a book when i was 16 (yes, it was published, and is now features as a collectors item due to fact that print run was small, and it was hand bound in leather). just proves you can improve in reverse (!)

  2. carolinegourlay September 4, 2013 at 7:53 am - Reply

    Ah yes, Jim, use it or lose it. Skills can degrade without practice, even the ones based on ‘quick insight’ – I used to be able to do incredibly complex statistical analysis but I’ve forgotten most of it now. I’m not sure which is more frustrating, knowing you used to be able to do it or never having been any good in the first place. I guess at least with the former you can reassure yourself that you’ve mastered it once so you should be able to again.

  3. Simon Watt September 4, 2013 at 5:28 pm - Reply

    So true – the bit about not trying for fear of failure is often a major barrier to growth. Nice blog, Caroline

  4. carolinegourlay September 5, 2013 at 10:06 am - Reply

    Cheers Simon. I hadn’t even thought of it as fear of failure, more fear of looking stupid. I think a lot of people believe they could probably succeed if they tried hard enough, they just can’t get through that pain barrier. I guess that’s short term failure.

  5. Martin Hedley September 27, 2017 at 7:41 pm - Reply

    Caroline, this sort of advice never gets stale, so enjoy the time with your sister! To the younger manager aspiring to greater roles there is always the feeling that once a topic is ‘done’ its done and time to move on to something new, however after a few years of this and without continual application of what was learned, it feels like the floor is taken away from beneath you. Been there, done that! As I coach managers today, I expect them to select the few critical skills that will get them where they want to be as they cannot afford to lose what went before. So now, back to my mapping skills revision as I think I will need them next month and its been a while …..

    • carolinegourlay September 28, 2017 at 5:12 pm - Reply

      Thanks Martin. My current ‘gradual improvement learning’ challenge is I have a new car which is a) an automatic (not used to those) and b) a hybrid. I’m finding it a challenge to relearn how to drive!

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