Self-Attitudes Toward Self-Education

Most adults will undertake learning something new from time to time especially if it involves only a modest effort or reasonably short time commitment. A major new learning effort, however, will usually be something easy to commit to only if there is a reward at the end of the learning; e.g., a new or higher paying job, or another outcome that one feels pleased about.

Those with moderate or severely pessimistic views are often unable to make new commitments to learning. Even while they may try they are likely to fail for any number of simple or more complicated reasons. In extreme cases, they may feel that conditions are permanent, and they are powerless to intervene. They may feel that they are always at fault in creating the negative situation in which they find themselves, and thus any action they may take is only likely to make matters worse. In the extreme, they feel that they just can’t do anything correctly, that any action they take will even appear to sabotage their position.

In the psychology literature these kinds of behaviors are associated with the much studied idea of “learned helplessness,” or a self-perceived lack of control over the outcomes of situations. Their behaviors may be specific but are often a generalized. In some instances with respect to taking on a  self-educating project, one may never get it off the ground as one is convinced it involves learning something one is incapable of learning. For example, many people are convinced that they are incapable of learning mathematics. They simply can’t or won’t solve the problem. They can’t work themselves into even trying, even though it may be that an effort to do so while achieving only a modest level of success would bring them certain rewards in life.

At the same time, while convinced that they are incapable of learning any form of math more complicated than simple grade school math, they may be capable of learning enthusiastically almost anything else. Thus, their “learned helplessness” applies only to math and not to other issues. Those with a more generalized pessimistic style may be unable to learn almost anything new and the longer this goes on the more likely they are experience more crippling psychological effects. Depression, anxiety, or more likely, shyness or loneliness may be common, even though not always serious enough perhaps to require clinical intervention. Some will fight through these difficulties in peculiar ways.

A friend, a university professor, almost always took the negative view. He would always look for the black cloud even when there was a silver lining that was clearly visible. When he had committed to write a grant proposal, which might take a month or more, he was unable to do any thing else other than cover his own classes. When asked he would simply say he was unable to do anything other than the grant proposal he was working on or his own classes until the grant had been completed and was in the mail. Most others, even in academic circles, found this behavior unusual. But it worked for him — and seemed acceptable as just another form of eccentricity among academics.

And so, most of us through life will find it necessary or advantageous to learn something new from time to time. Most of us will be able to do that without having to fight through phobias or other psychological detriments. In some cases we may have to fight through issues, some of which we may have been unaware. We may help ourselves through negative issues that will be easier to overcome the next time. We should always try if we are able. If we are not for some reason, then we should try to assess why and do something about that behavior before it becomes something we are less able to control.


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