Often, we think of learning as a purely additive experience. For example, if I read an article about parrot fish living on the Great Barrier Reef, when I previously didn’t know a thing about sea life off the coast of Australia, I gain something. It adds to my collection of facts, like a new piece of furniture in a room.

The same might go for some new fruit in the grocery store, a new app on my phone, or a handy new way to say “thank you” to a friend in Turkish. Life’s lessons, however, are rarely so simple. They aren’t like adding furniture to a room; they’re like moving walls and replacing doorways. To rebuild the room, something’s gotta feel the business end of a sledgehammer.

Deep Learning Disorients Us

We liked things where they were. It was comfortable, if not familiar. Those were our frameworks and assumptions. Whatever our reality, we grow to prefer that certainty because it provides a huge array of answers that we don’t need to think about.

Look at it this way. If you consider yourself a good person who does good work, and then you learn of a competitor who just invented a way to make your work obsolete, suddenly the world doesn’t make as much sense.

One moment you had a feeling of efficacy. Your work created a certain result and that was worth something. Then, out of the blue, someone redefined the work and through no fault of your own, whatever you did yesterday is not as useful today.

How do you work now that your proverbial desk is gone? Maybe your whole office? You had routines! You knew what to do first thing, and next, and then after that… What now?!

Embrace the confusion. That groundlessness is meaningful. It means you’re growing.

Learning Teaches Us Who We Are

You can protest the fact that your office and all the furniture in it is rearranged, or you can find a new way to work. It’s not easy to let go of what you thought you had. It’s not easy to reimagine yourself in your new reality.

Our egos put us in context. That sense of self we all have is a feeling that’s built up in relation to the people around us and how we interact with them. When we learn something that changes those relationships significantly, it forces us to recalibrate our self image.

When it turns out you were terribly wrong about something, are you willing to recalibrate who you think you are? Revisiting the notion that a competitor invented a disruptive new technology and swept the world out from under you… did they do that to you? Do you blame them? Do you blame management? Do you say f*ck it and give up?

Whatever it is you thought you knew that made your world make sense, turns out, you were wrong. No, it’s not the competitor that did it to you, or anyone else. That competitor uncovered an insight that was previously secret. It was already true, you just didn’t know it yet.

Are you a person who believes true things? I’m reasonably certain you want to be, but confronting truths that are new to you can be more than inconvenient. It can be jarring, even devastating to the image you had of yourself.

Learning Forces Us to Change

“Sure, I knew that all along. Totally saw it coming.”

Did you? Hindsight bias is one of our handy cognitive tricks that preserve ego by rewriting the past. If you didn’t anticipate a change, maybe there was something wrong with you– something lacking. The ego doesn’t like that feeling. So it’ll reach for another: omniscience.

We can all very easily say we knew whatever did happen would happen. It preserves our feeling of control in a changing landscape and keeps us safely out of helplessness. Trouble is, maybe you were helpless for a moment. Maybe (probably) you had no idea that change was coming.

Maybe you weren’t just going along to get along– maybe you were actually perpetuating the problem when you should have known better. Are you prepared to own that and change?

From tiny assumptions (this font on this button will help more users click), to encompassing world views (democratic ideals are responsible for the economic and political power of the West), we build our own worlds– and our selves, our egos— out of ideas. Ideas are flawed. Always have been, always will be.

Learners, innovators, hyper-adapters know that what we think about the world and our role in it is fraught with ignorance. It’s hiding everywhere, even in plain sight. We don’t make the world better by holding on to things we thought were true. We make it better, one small decision at a time, by discovering what’s really true, and changing ourselves accordingly.

That’s what real learning does for us. It destroys something, but it makes way for something better in the process, if we let it.