Easier Said (and Read) Than Done

photoIf you’ve been following my blog these past few entries, you’ve noticed that I’ve embarked on a new adventure.  I’m an educator who’s entered an MBA program.  I’m a Sloan Fellow at MIT.

Since the start of June, I’ve been studying microeconomics, leadership, financial accounting, and marketing management.  I’m learning a lot, and I’m doing it in an extremely intense environment.  We go to class daily (M-F) from 8:30am to either 4:30pm or 6:00pm.  When we’re not in class, we’re studying, working on problem sets, and working through group projects.  It’s exhilarating and exhausting.

That said, everything I’m learning is completely new to me.  I don’t have any background in these subjects and, after a few more weeks of them, I’ll take my finals and then shift into a new set of courses through the end of August – finance, operations, and data, models, and decision making.  I don’t have much background in these three courses either.

Let me just say that every single day is a humbling experience.  Actually, every single hour is a humbling experience.

There’s an image in the movie, Back to School, with Rodney Dangerfield that keeps coming to mind when I think about how I feel right now.  It’s the point toward the end of the movie when he’s cramming to pass his finals.  He’s got a book in his hand wherever he goes – the shower, the massage table (he knows how to live), the gym, etc.  That’s about what I look like right now (wedge in a laptop and picture me younger, fitter, and female, and you get the picture).

The hardest part of this learning experience, however, isn’t the challenge of learning all of these new skills and concepts.  Nope.  The hardest part, for me, is not feeling like a complete idiot.  Yep.  Here I sit.  The educator with all the empathy in the world for students and teachers who learn new concepts and skills for the first time.  I’m patient.  I recognize they need processing time, practice time, and time to digest what they’re learning.

I get all that . . . and yet . . . I can’t seem to apply what I know about learning to myself – the time it takes, the fact that it’s challenging to learn lots of new concepts and skills in a short time, primarily through lecture.  I’m having a tough time cutting myself some slack.  Instead, I beat myself up for not getting it all immediately.

I’m a big fan of Carol Dweck’s work on the growth mindset.  I’ve read nearly all of her books and research studies.  When I read her work, I remember thinking how her research gave me a framework for what I knew and felt about students – young and old – and their learning processes (and what I felt about those times in my life when I was learning something new and difficult, like how to write a dissertation).

Guess what?  You can get it, but you can still struggle to make it your own.  I’m not dumb.  I’m not slow.  I’m just learning.  And it’s HARD.  It’s also really hard when your colleagues whip through the concepts and skills because they’ve had the courses before and/or have worked in this field and have used the skills you’re learning every day.

Well, Gayle . . . get over yourself.  You’ll keep at it.  You’ll learn as much as you can.  And you’ll make a lot of mistakes.  And you’ll struggle.  Swallow your pride, Dr. Allen, and move on.

If you’ve got a story like this to share, I’d love to hear it.  I can’t imagine I’m alone on this one.


  1. El-ad on June 29, 2011 at 7:53 pm

    A similar experience, I believe:

    During junior high my father suggested that I try taking a few university courses, in parallel to my K-12 studies. I always had it easy in school: passing exams with no preparation, writing assignments last minute, and not exactly paying my full attention in class. It was only natural that I try something a bit more challenging, and my father’s idea seemed right.

    I took my first course, Introduction to Computer Programming. It was easy, of course; I had extensive programming experience, and I have been using the specific programming language taught (Pascal) for years. I ended up passing the course with a grade of 88, probably one of the lowest grades I have ever received before then… Which should have raised some red flags. My 15-year-old self ignored the warning signs.

    The next course I took was Calculus. Calculus is HARD. It’s even harder when you have none of the background material needed (which was taught around the 10th grade). I failed miserably. I got 17 on the mid term. I took the final exam three times; my grades were 27, 35 and 57 (I was three points short of passing the course).

    Needless to say, I was devastated. How can this be? I never failed anything! After a short whining period, my father gave me “a talk”, in which he explained a simple truth: unless I sit down and STUDY, I will never get anywhere. The junior high/high school material I so easily assimilate is important, but college education is more complex by several degrees.

    Unfortunately, despite his best attempts, it took me another three years to learn that lesson. My university grades remained around the low 80s throughout high school. Only after high school I started giving them their deserved attention.

  2. Gayle on June 29, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    El-ad, thank you for sharing this story. It is very heartening. Yep. It’s all about putting the time in to learn it and recognizing that it’s going to take practice and repetition and floundering.

  3. Brad on July 8, 2011 at 9:19 am

    Four years ago I decided I wanted to learn how to play volleyball. Learning how to spike a ball was one of the most difficult lessons I’ve ever tried to master (I’m serious). Conceptually, it’s easy as one-two-three (the approach to the net, and then the spike). I get it. But try to put it into practice… Well, it took me much longer than my classmates to make even half the progress. My coach came up to me, exasperated, and asked if I was listening. He repeated the lesson, and walked off, frustrated.

    How many times have I grown frustrated with a student for not getting a concept the first, the second or the fifth time? But I WAS that student. And so, every time I feel even an inkling of frustration, I just tell myself, “This isn’t English; this is volleyball.” And now I think I’m a much more compassionate, and much more patient teacher. And I don’t just repeat what I said before when I try to get through to a student!

  4. Gayle on July 12, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    Brad, thanks for sharing this story. Yes! Compassion and patience are key! I think students – young or old(er) – quickly pick up on how patient and compassionate their teachers are and then determine from there how willing they are to push to understand. It’s a challenge. If a teacher is impatient or callous, s/he can really shut down the learner. Not easy for teachers, but potentially devastating for students.