There’s a lot of different lenses you can use to view any situation. Say you’re trying to get in better shape, improve your career, find a good relationship or just want to be happier with your life.
You could see these through a lens of effort: the problem is simply that you haven’t tried hard enough and now you need to really get serious. Really start exercising, work harder, meet more people, finally commit to things, and so on.
You could see these problems through a lens of other people. You need to get other people to help you, either by befriending them, cajoling with them or earning their favor. Once you’ve got the right people next to you, everything else will click into place.
You could even see these problems through a lens of attitudes. Have the right beliefs, optimism and inspiration and you’ll be successful.
Some of these lenses might not help you see much clearer than before. However, some lenses immediately bring a lot of clarity to a situation. Once you view your problem through the right lens, it can be a lot easier to think about.
In this post, I want to argue that a particularly helpful lens it to view your life problems as learning challenges in disguise.
How Life Problems are Really Learning Problems
Some people are resistant to this lens. They’ll argue that they already know what to do, they just don’t always do it. The problem is doing what they know, not knowing what they do. You need to actually get out and exercise, not learn about new workout plans.
Others argue that learning is often procrastination. More time spent researching is more time spent delaying actually doing what needs to be done. You need to actually start your business, not keep researching new business ideas.
The problem with these perspectives is that it tends to assume learning is mostly the narrow, book-based studying you’re used to in school. That to learn something new means reading a lot and contemplating theories rather than taking action.
If you look at definitions of learning in cognitive science or psychology, however, it’s clear that what most people stereotype of as “learning” is just one very specific type. Learning includes almost any persistent changes that occur in your brain as a result of experience that is beneficial.
Learning Beyond Studying
With this broader perspective, a lot of things that don’t at first seem like learning challenges, become a different kind of learning challenge.
Consider exercising again. It’s probably true that you don’t need to read about more exercise plans or theories of weight loss to get in better shape. But the challenge still involves learning, except it is learning how to get yourself to exercise regularly.
This kind of learning isn’t theoretical, but it still works on exactly the same principles that all learning operates on. You have to pair cues and reactions (say having your day end with going to the gym). You have to integrate feedback, so when your habit collapses you know how to readjust it to prevent failing next time. You have to learn skills—not just physical ones like lifting weights, aerobics or dancing—but mental ones of motivation, persistence and prioritization.
Similarly, having a good relationship is also a learning challenge. You need to learn to communicate. You need to learn social skills, how to have conversations and learn to read emotions and situations. The learning involved here is sophisticated, even if it doesn’t come from a book.
Why Adopt This Perspective?
I said from the start that you can view your problems through any number of lenses. Learning is just one of them. However, I believe it can be a particularly useful lens. In fact, I’d argue it’s a much better lens than ones which emphasize effort, attitudes or other people.
Effort matters, of course. But when you can’t seem to put in enough effort, how does this perspective solve your problem? Just do… more? But if you can’t do more, the solution this lens offers dead-ends pretty fast.
Learning, in contrast, suggests that there is a hidden system that you need to understand. That system may be out there in the world, in the form of things you need to know and skills you need to master. But it can also be inside your head. Learning how to motivate yourself, stay committed, disciplined and focus on your priorities turns our initial response from “Put in more effort,” to, “How could I put in more effort?”
Attitudes also matter. Optimism, inspiration and motivation are key elements to succeed at anything. But, what about when you are feeling pessimistic, afraid and discouraged? What then? Simply “reverse” how you feel about things? How long can that realistically last?
Learning, in contrast, makes your problems objective. Instead of just feeling good about them, you need to figure out how they work and how you can move forward. Experimentation, feedback, researching new strategies, techniques and methods.
Other people also matter. But when you put your salvation in the hands of other people, you also give them a power over your life. If your success doesn’t depend on you, how can you possibly make it come about?
Learning Challenges and Solving Life’s Problems
Viewing your problems as learning challenges may help in some cases. But in other cases, it may seem to be confusing. How do you learn to motivate yourself and stay disciplined? How do you learn empathy, communication and social skills? How do you learn when there’s no subject to study?
Fortunately, there’s already a lot known about what ingredients are necessary for learning to occur. Environments that allow for feedback. Breaking down complex skills into manageable parts. Repetition and recall to make patterns into memories. Ideas and examples to model your progress from.
Turning a life problem into a learning challenge doesn’t make it trivial. But it can offer solutions where other ways of thinking just lead to confusion.
Thinking about life’s challenges as learning problems has been a big motivator behind my book, ULTRALEARNING, now available for pre-order.