The Estranged Triplets: Ego, Learning, and Developing a Growth Mindset

When the student is ready, the teacher appears.

On the Road was first published in 1957.

This cliché is as old as the groans its use induces.
Overuse and dilution don’t discredit the inherit meaning, however. Learning, of course, isn’t appearing to a classroom and waiting for an instructor to “teach us.” We must be ready to learn.

Easier said than done, you say? You got that right.

I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in 2011, when I was a twenty-four-year-old man-child in the midst of becoming independent while living in the tropics of Latin America, and away from home for the first time. For obvious reasons, the adventures of Sal, Dean, and the beat generation resonated with and excited me. Their adventures and tomfoolery were, in my mind, similar to what I was doing. What I didn’t get from the book, however, was the deeper, more profound meaning of loneliness and insecurity behind Kerouac’s poetically-erratic rhythm. I finished the book happy that I had read it, but wishing it was about 50 pages shorter.

Last year, in 2017 and almost six years to the day, I picked it up again. And this time, the book was completely different. The words, of course, were the same; I was not.

More clichés, you say? No problem. Ancient Greek philosopher Heracitus, who was gesticulating long before there were clichés — or last names — stated that “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

In 2011, I wasn’t ready to read the book. In 2017, I was more ready.

Learning, or the state of being ready or willing to learn, is largely the same. What prevented me from learning Kerouac’s deeper message the first time around? Denial? Immaturity? Lack of experience? Naivety? Overconfidence? All of the above?

These questions also beg others.

When do we acquire the most information? When are we resistant to learning? Why is this? When and why do we perceive an instructor or imparter of knowledge as inferior? We must first  answer all these for ourselves, and then put them aside in order for meaningful learning to occur.

There is one question that we can answer right now: The biggest obstacle to real learning? Our egos.

Ego plays a much bigger role than we think in this process. The issue with it is that we don’t even know it exists. Or, perhaps we refuse to acknowledge it.

With a wide variety of interpretations, just as with learning, the ego — and its impact —  is helpful to understand through examples. One of my favourite books is Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday. If you have read it, you’ll know what I’m getting at. If you have not, I highly recommend that you do.

Holiday lines his book with examples as well. One of the most impactful is the story of Kirk Hammett, guitarist with Metallica. After selling over 100 million albums, Hammett decided he wasn’t satisfied with his skill level and enrolled in more classes. What followed is fascinating.

What separated him from others was his willingness to endure the type of instruction they refused to. “He was a good student,” Joe Satriani, Hammett’s instructor, said. “Many of his friends and contemporaries would storm out complaining[,] thinking I was too harsh a teacher.” Satriani, coach of many famed guitarists, has sold over 10 million records in his own right.

Kirk Hammett, left, and his guru, Joe Satriani, right.

Kirk Hammett, seemingly, had it all professionally. He was in one of the biggest bands in the world; he was famous; he sold more records than most bands only dream of; he was beloved and had a job for life. And yet, he didn’t fall into complacency. He wanted more. And he went after it.

If Kirk Hammett can do it, why is it so difficult for all of us?

The ego, of course. Holiday goes on to make many spot-on points, but the following poignant ones really resonated with me, especially as I have been asking myself many of these questions lately:

Why as adults are we so resistant to learning? “We don’t like thinking someone else is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done.”

Why do many adults prefer being the teacher to the student? “The power of being a student is…it also places the ego and ambition in someone else’s hands.”

How confident are you in your skills and knowledge? What about your ability to improve? “The pretense of knowledge is our most dangerous vice, because it prevents us from getting any better. Studious self-assessment is the antidote.”

If Ryan Holiday isn’t for you, allow me to point to one more great Greek thinker: Epictetus. In one simple yet deep sentence, he encompasses all that it means to learn: “it is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”

Are you Kirk Hammett or the other well-established professionals who walked out on the sessions?

Perhaps we’re starting to unwrap those questions I posed earlier. Or perhaps not. But I know this: it’s not only students who fall into the ego trap; this also applies to teachers. And musicians. And philosophers, artists, writers, and everyone else. Ego is not profession specific but human specific. And once we understand how our ego affects us, we must turn our focus towards learning; the actual acquisition of knowledge and the process of continual improvement and development. We must learn to develop a growth mindset.

When I read On the Road the first time, I missed the bigger meaning because I only took from it what I wanted to get out of it; a quasi lifestyle confirmation bias, if you will. My ego told me that my life was great and I didn’t need to change a thing. No consequences were on the horizon.

New Year’s Resolutions are one of the biggest clichés we have. But you know what? At least they inspire change, even if only temporarily. To finish this post and start the new year accordingly, let’s return to our friend, Heraclitus: “There is nothing permanent except change.” Here’s hoping we all take this to heart in 2019.

Recommended reading on this topic:

Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin

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