Taking Risks Is How You Learn New Skills

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We now know how we learned in the past – through rote learning and repetition – that goes against the grain of our brain. It is amazing that people learned anything at all! When you go against the brain’s structure, you’re fighting a steep uphill battle. But it is much better to go with the flow. We learn lessons surprisingly quickly when we’re made to care. 

Interestingly, this is even more true for freelancers than school goers. After all, students are obliged to attend classes. Freelancers, however, decide for themselves how to spend their time. And when learning is inherently unappealing or uninteresting, it’s easy to go prioritize something else. 

That’s why we have to learn to use emotional engagement and – even better – risk to keep ourselves learning. Because not only we will keep ourselves on task longer, but we’ll learn more quickly as well.

The Iowa gambling task

This is beautifully illustrated through the Iowa gambling task, where you get to choose from four decks of cards. The cards either give you money or take it away again.

The decks vary on two ways. The first is size of what you receive and pay, with some introducing big swings and other smaller ones. The other is the ‘goodness’ of the deck, with some on average paying more and others taking more. 

What’s so interesting is that people zero in on which decks are good and which ones are bad surprisingly quickly – from 40 to 50 tries they’re avoiding the bad ones.

Even more interesting is what happens subconsciously. As they care about the results, most participants already had an unconscious stress response to the bad decks within 10 trials. From there it was 30 more trails before they consciously caught on.

But why is this so? 

Working with your emotionality  

Plato originally described reason and emotion as two horses pulling in opposite direction. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt recently updated this analogy in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He said emotion and reason aren’t equal. Instead, emotion is an elephant and the reason is the rider sitting on the back of an elephant. The rider can push and prod and the elephant will often listen. But if the elephant gets something in its head the rider is powerless.

For that reason, the way to succeed at anything – whether it is success in business, finding meaning or learning new skills – is to work with your emotions. There are a lot of ways to do so. You can be interested or engaged, for example. But it’s even better to tie your future well-being up in the lesson. Like when you risk.

How to use risk to improve yourself

Not all risks are equal. Some risks are simply too overwhelming to be productive. This can happen if the risk is too great or the task you’ve set for yourself is too daunting. In the other direction, if the risk is too small it won’t motivate.

Another factor to consider is if there is actually anything to learn. For example, casinos are inherently risky but not all their games provide lessons. You can get better at poker, but as statisticians will tell you with online slots don’t have that same potential.

From this we realize two things about risk:

1.       There is a goldilocks zone of risk. Too much and the stress becomes overwhelming. Too little and you won’t care.

2.       There has to be a lesson. There is risk in betting money on a coin toss. But unless you’re in the business of doing coin tricks, there isn’t much to learn.  

Applying that to freelancing

You can apply this principle to your work by taking projects that lies somewhat outside of your field of expertise. In this case, the extra motivation of a deadline and an expectant client will push you to learn more, work harder and dig deeper. 

Note that the idea is not to move from checkers to skydiving. Instead, you’ll want something close to what you already know. Checkers to chess, say. In this case, your expertise will give you the fluency necessary to avoid freezing up through stress.

A final point with this way of learning is that when you take more risk you will fail more often. That’s the nature of risk. If you gamble – be it in a casino online or life – there is a chance you’ll lose.

To compensate for that, you must do two things:

1.       Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.

2.       Separate the lesson from the task.

That second point requires closer scrutiny. There is a lot to be learned from failure – but you’ll only appreciate that if you give yourself the space to do so. Therefore, remember to separate what you’ve gained materially and what you’ve gained intellectually. And if the gamble does fail, you can always console yourself with the most important lesson of all – the more you learn, the more likely taking such risks will pay off in the future.

 

 

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