As I somersault – losing my headphones and crash hard into the grassplot – a cute girl cycles by. She asks: “Are you all right?” With a cracking voice, I barked back confused: “Part of the deal!”
I was learning to longboard. #30yearsold #nevertoolatetolearn. It involved a bit more crashes than anticipated. Got overconfident, believing I could run it with Mötley Crëw in the background. Guess I wasn’t that cool yet, hahaha. More practice was needed.
I spit out some grass clumps, dust myself off, reassemble my headphone (still working, yes!) and climbed back on the board. Here we go again.
A small trail of blood runs down my knees, a reminder of my lesson learned. Scratches and humiliation won’t be there forever. The experience will. The mind forgets the event, but the body remembers. Tweaking my movements just a bit, to reduce the chances of this happening again.
This is learning.
Learning is not without some pain and bruises.
Not just the case for physical challenges, but also for mental, social and emotional endeavors. Being confident takes practice. Social fluency requires training hours. Yeah, some people are more talented. But they too had the arduous process of trial and error.
Going from utterly incompetent to being smooth AF.
Good news, you can still learn almost everything! So even if you feel socially left behind – you can still master; small talk, engaging group conversation, meeting new people, storytelling, making new friends,– you name it – all within your grasp!
Better yet – it can become second nature.
If you are very analytical, you notice it seems a bit harder. But you too can train these ambiguous skills. To explain – let’s talk about two things closely related. The ways we think and the ways we learn.
Our thinking processes are described by many scholars. Conceptualizing how we think. Despite the mysteries of neurochemistry, some models describe our mind fairly well. Useful for improving its practical use.
Let’s focus on 3 models and how they relate to your thinking and learning. Those are; two system thinking, the four steps of learning and the habit loop.
Two System Thinking
The first model is about our 2 primary thought processes. As described by Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow. As the title explains – you have two primary modes of thinking. Two ways of processing information and taking consecutive action.
You have the initial gut feeling. Intuitive, emotional fast thinking. A primarily unconscious process for rapid action, judgment, and decisions. And your slow deliberate, focused and logical thinking. More conscious, reflective and objective. Our active thoughts and actions will vary depending on what system is running.
Most of the time you use your fast brain. Why? Our minds are lazy. Because humans, like any other well-evolved organism, save energy. So we use mental shortcuts, which are more efficient! (in the short run). Besides we evolved in a context that demanded fast judgment.
Resulting in fast habituated thinking. A prime example is your emotions. Fast indicators – appraisings of what a certain situation means to you! Very useful in lots of contexts. Absolutely deceiving in others.
A blood-soaked freak comes running at you with an ax. Initial reaction – get the fuck out or cock your gun and go all Texas on him. Useful fast and intuitive fight or flight reaction. But when giving an office presentation and you get the same kind of feelings – you know the wrong system is running.
Our fast intuitive thinking is great for creativity and social interactions. Uncovering the mysteries of small talk with logic will get you stuck! From a rational approach, it is bonkers. From an emotional intuitive approach – perfect sense!
So the system is great in ambiguous situations, prone to error in others. Absolutely in modern contexts. Try solving calculations with your emotional intelligence. “3 times 4 feels like it should be like 13” Slow thinking is better here!
Deliberate thought is often more reliable. It helps you solve those math problems. Or you can take a broad view – strategically considering choices in your career and even relationships.
The flight into the analytical
Yet we use our analytical mind when we should not use it. Modern culture sometimes relies too much on (perceived) rationale.
Our deep focus on technology and science is the effect of this. Often very good approaches – but we sometimes need an artful approach as well. Not solely focusing on data. We also need the humanitarian and intuitive.
Especially analytical people try to solve all problems solely with slow thinking. Not really getting the intangible, intuitive approaches. Resulting in well thought over strategies that have little effect in practice. Some wicked problems are unsolvable by purely rational thinking. Still, we flee into the analytical way of thinking, getting stuck there.
For example, a colleague of mine, a pure-blood engineer, took a photography course. He just wanted know how to configure the lens, the flash and other settings of the camera. Then, he believes, he can make great pictures.
When his arty-farty mentor rambles about lighting, contrast, colors, and composition, he just doesn’t get it. Yet the right combination of those indiscrete factors makes for a great picture. One that stirs your soul. But this is just vague mumbo-jumbo to him. So he gets the technique right – but will never make beautiful pictures. Because beauty is reached intuitively.
On the other hand, I know artists who totally see what constitutes a great picture. But can’t wrap their head around the technology – struggling to comprehend ISO, shutter-speed and aperture. Thus unable to create a great picture. You need both logic and intuition.
The same goes for different subjects and problems. The rational and intuitive are two different ways to look at the world. Switch your perspective if you want to better comprehend the whole.
Many of us chronically miss intuitive thinking. That becomes abundantly clear when you see all the writers who capitalize on that. Hence the avalanche of books, blogs and more with the title template: “The art of [skill].”
The art of non-conformity, The art of manliness, The art of leadership, The art of sales, The art of seduction, – and my favorite – The subtle art of not giving a fuck.
To name but a few.
But they are right, a lot of subjects need a creative intuitive approach next to a rational. These writers could use some creativity with book titles though,…
(side note – obviously a lot of feely/touchy/ambiguous problems can very often use a very cold rational approach as well!)
So the artful, intuitive thinking is sometimes the right approach. Or at least a good additional approach. So how do you go from analytical to intuition? For example becoming confident. You ask your buddy, Peter, who oozes confidence to help you understand. What do you get back?
“Just do it!” “Fake it till you make it!”
Fuck that Peter – that doesn’t help. True from his perspective. But he doesn’t understand the problem. Not as you experience it. He already does it intuitively, he doesn’t know the conscious steps to take, so Peter talks about just doing it.
You can only very deliberate try, still not getting it. Falling back on your old modes that don’t work. The trick is to help you go from fast thinking incompetence to fast thinking competence.
So how do you become natural? How do you fake it till you make it? Here is where more the second model comes in.
4 steps of learning
If you deliberately think and do something enough, you can master it. You can integrate it into your fast unconscious thinking pattern. Practice makes perfect!
Here the second model comes in; the four-step process of learning.
In this model rock bottom is just messing around. You don’t even know there is a better way. The first step is becoming aware you have been unconsciously incompetent.
Somehow by accident, observation or learning – you can realize there is a better way. An “aha!” moment! Let’s take a general example we all experienced. Learning how to walk.
As a toddler you are blissfully ignorant – crawling is the shit! But someday you realize people around you are only using their legs? (or you’ve read that somewhere.) And boy is everybody fast – you become aware of your incompetence. Besides, you see the potential – you want to walk! You are now consciously incompetent.
Going from here to the next level is the hard part! You know there is a better way. Crawling worked so far – but now you need to walk. But how?
Luckily with your beginner’s mind you don’t even doubt you can master it.
So you get up on two legs. You fall, you fail, you try again. Repeat a 1000 times. It hurts, it is frustrating – but sometimes you can take 2 steps, sometimes even 4. Until eventually with months of training and a lot of conscious effort (are toddlers conscious?) you can walk. You strut from one side of the room to the other. Cheered on by your family, hailed as a champion of your people! (I think we miss this part in adult learning).
You have arrived at the conscious competence stage.
Yes, you can walk, but you need to focus! As you keep practicing, you get better. Cocky even. Despite still falling a lot, you go on. You can do stuff simultaneously. Carry toys, eat, drink – you don’t need to concentrate as much anymore.
Until one day, you are actually not really aware of walking around. You are at the final stage. Unconscious competence! Mastery!
Congratulations, you learned to walk!
As you go about your life and keep walking on – which I guess you did – you hone your skill more and more! Until your joints are worn out. You took the steps (pun intended), to take a fast thinking pattern [crawling], used slow focused thinking [learning] to change it. Now it is integrated as fast thinking [walking]. Same goes for any skill!
So how does the third model – the habit loop fit in?
The habit loop describes your automated/fast thinking behaviors. Your routines. This model is first described by Charles Duhigg in his book. So how does it work? You automate behavior – because you have a lazy brain remember :). (“Remember?! You sluggish sack of neurons!”) It saves energy where it can.
For sake of ease, you make if-this-then-that scripts in your head. These start with a cue, an IF. These trigger a behavior a THAT. Resulting in a reward. That can be a high five, a hamburger, a like, money or line of coke. But as you look deeper into your physiology, it is really an emotional/hormonal reward. Like a shot of serotonin or dopamine.
The more often you exercise a habit, the easier it is. Your neural pathway is like a river carved through the rocks – the older the river, the deeper the groove. Easy to keep the same course and hard to change direction.
To change your behavior you have to actively force the water through a different circuit. Blocking the deep easy path and pushing it over a new rough path. Forcing a new action with an old cue. That costs willpower. For a long time, the old path will more easily carry the water. But over time your new behavior will carve a new deeper canyon for you.
That is how new habits are etched in your brain. That is how to reprogram yourself. Actively change your behavior after certain cues. Build that dam – force that water the other way.
The models combined
How does this pertain to the other two models? How do we combine these models? Well, we have a certain fast thinking behavior at the lower rung – but it is something we want to change.
You have to consciously change your habit loop pertaining to that fast thinking. This takes slow thinking! Building the dam, going from unconscious incompetence in your habit to conscious competence. Step 2 to 3 on the ladder. As you change the loop every time – you slowly move up the ladder.
Until you are able consciously doing the right thing all the time. From that stage, you just have to do this enough til your loop is automatic. You now have it ingrained in your unconscious competent fast thinking.
Thanks for the theory – now what?
Well, you want to learn ambiguous skills? Like social skills. Like confidence. Do you want to be that relaxed social bad ass?
You already have unconscious habits for handling social situations. Most likely not effective ones. If you are an analytical mind, you try to solve this by rational primarily! But as you’ve seen – you need that intuitive approach as well. Besides – you got to know where to aim! What to practice when climbing the stairs of competence.
Use these models to understand where you stand and where to go. To appreciate why you need practice and push through the hard moments! Be awkward, be uncomfortable, be anxious. But push through anyway! Go from step 2 to 3. Fine tune on the way. Consciously doing something that feels not natural, YET!
Learn the art of social skills (damn it, no creativity!).
There is practice to do IRL as well. Only real life feedback works – all the rest; DM-ing, WhatsApp, Snapchat, Insta, – all just substitutes. (what do you kids use nowadays?)
See what happens when you give a compliment, see what happens when you call someone an asshole! Look them in the eyes. There is your feedback. How you feel about their reaction is your second line of feedback.
As you interact more all kind of pre-existing programs will kick in. You are just (re)learning how to use them. For example, how to recognize facial expressions is hard-wired – you just need to practice eye contact again.
Often reflect and go back to how you practiced. Rehearse in your head. Confront people and their emotions. Get experienced with your own!
If you want to – track your progress and map reflections and feedback. This will need a certain sense of (self) awareness – but developing that helps to hone your intuition.
Want to start practicing? How about using a game plan!
Make or steal a plan to gradually learn. Here are a few to get started. How about never running out of things to say? Subscribe below to learn how!