Food for thought

Happy Brain, Learning Brain

by Julia Weiss

"I don’t know how to do it and I anyway don't want to write, it's just stupid, why do I have to learn it, when it's so difficult?" The pencil flies across the large round table into a corner of the dining room and Liv protests her little elbows on the dark wooden surface. 

Besides the fact that children, who are today six years old, might actually not need to hand-write anymore in the professions that they fulfill in the digitized future, I try to elaborate with her - what makes learning so difficult? Why are we struggling especially in the beginning?

Together we watch a film “how the brain learns” which shows what happens in the brain, when we learn: the synapses in our brain create new connections that have not existed before. That takes a lot of energy. Over time, the connections and impulses between the new synapse friends become stronger and more resilient and the procedure requires less and less energy and attention, this is when things after a while become easier and feel more natural - such as running, cycling, writing and reading. Or a new job, a challenging project, a changed environment. 

Our brain needs a lot of energy – actually more than any other part of the body - and saves wherever it can by sticking to the familiar and looking for well-known patterns. This - among others drives our inherent “resistance to change” towards new things. The older we get, the higher the likelihood that this outweighs the other driving force - our natural curiosity and ambition - a main reason for human development. So before our brain gets involved in new structures of thought, it prefers to use energy to explain why these changes should not happen or should not be, in short why "it does not work".- Hence if we have a built-in "learning and change resistance", what is needed so that we can get engage in a learning journey and even enjoy it? 

The first step is to escape from the downward spiral of fear of failure and pressure by becoming aware that we have a choice with which attitude we face the challenges and changes ahead - feeling small, powerless, fearful and defiant - or brave, curious and enjoying the experience and learning curve, no matter what the result looks like. 

In my conversation with Liv we discuss how this could work. Liv thinks out loud: "Babies are not afraid or ashamed that they can't walk, and we don't laugh at them when they practice it". So, when does it start that we are afraid of not mastering new challenges and of the consequences of a first “falling down”? Whether we face change as managers or introduce children to our world as legal guardians - in both cases we need to provide a happy, fear-free, attentive environment, one that feels safe and in which failure and learning is permitted and desired. One where there are no losers, just win-win situations because we face change, expose ourselves to it and have a chance to shape it ourselves. Because we know that learning consists of many small steps and that there is encouragement to progress. Or as Liv phrases her own insight "I do not have to master it today - it is actually enough if I get a little better every day, right? 

Wouldn’t that be a wonderful resolution for the new decade?


Julia Weiss works with her executive clients to unleash their full potential in their varying roles, and/or of their work teams and organizations. Thus she enables the executive and his or her team to achieve a sophisticated and sustainable level of performance. Julia is a certified executive and team coach, moderator and speaker with a focus of sales performance and change management. She works as a Partner of Leadership Choices, an international consultancy focusing on leadership development at Top Management level. Julia’s experience is based on more than 15 years of work in different senior management settings – as a strategy consultant and as managing director - sales in the media industry.

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