A Rough Ride Up The Learning Curve

Updated: Nov 15 2003, 05:30am hrs
Three years ago, I decided to learn a brand new skill that I am ashamed to say I knew absolutely nothing about: managing my money. The stock market was booming. All of India was at the party. And here was my hard-earned money sitting like a couch potato in front of the television, twiddling its thumbs. So with great determination, I stepped into the neon-lit world of finance where dazzling words like Debt and Equity flashed their siren signs.

Within a few months, totally discouraged, I wanted to head right back. None of it made any sense. Each time I spoke to a financial advisor, my head fogged up. It all sounded like Serbo-Croatian. Stop-loss orders Risk profiles Conservative portfolios Net asset values I felt like a five year old trying to read a trigonometry text. I am never ever going to get this, I thought. I dont have the genes. Im no good at math. Maybe its a gender thing. Maybe I am terminally stupid.

This morning, however, I noticed a woman (who looks just like me) reading a complicated financial statement. And actually understanding it.

Wow. Happiness isnt mostly pleasure, its mostly victory.

The fog is finally lifting. Things I thought I would never figure out are suddenly making sense. Like a polaroid picture coming slowly into view, I am getting it. Finally.

This isnt a column about money at all. It is about how the learning curve works. Each time we learn something new playing the guitar, driving a car, speaking French, building a house we pass through four psychological stages. Stage two is when the ride gets really rough. Thats when most people give up.

When I was first introduced to this theory, it was an a-ha moment. Suddenly I understood that acquiring a new skill isnt about capability at all. Its about knowing how to ride the learning curve with its strange twists and turns. Anyone can get smarter if they know the milestones along the way.

The first stage is Unconscious Incompetence. You dont know very much and you dont know that you dont know. Ignorance is bliss. You are happy and comfortable. You never thought about managing your money or learning a new technology and you dont particularly care.

Then a crisis hits. Or perhaps you just want to learn something new. The moment you take a step towards learning a new skill, you hit the second stage: Conscious Incompetence. Suddenly you become conscious of how ignorant you really are. Its like entering a new country where you dont know the rules. Even the words everyone uses are different. Your lack of knowledge can badly shake your confidence. This is a very disturbing stage. Everything is baffling and mastery seems quite unattainable.

Psychologists call it the overwhelm stage because it comes with an oh my god, Im never going to understand any of this feeling. It can overwhelm you with self-doubt.

In fact this is an essential step on the learning curve. Barbara Stanny, a psychologist who has written extensively on the subject, says: What most of us fail to appreciate during these periods of confusion and inertia is that tremendous progress is actually occurring. Though we dont know it, cant see it, its like a garden in winterthere is life stirring beneath the surface.

Many people quit at this stage thinking they arent ever going to get it. I am reminded of an older relative, 60something, who badly wanted to learn how to use the internet. He didnt even know how to send an email. Well, he tried a few times and then gave up, saying: I am too old, Ill never figure it out. Had he persisted just a little longer, he could have had an active surf life today.

Basically all you need to do is hang in there. Persist. Read the darned stuff, walk around, blow off steam, read the stuff again.

Every new thing, whether its tennis or technology, has its own customs and its own vocabulary that can seem quite daunting to the uninitiated. And the investment world is especially coded in mysterious terms. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the US Federal Reserve himself once told a bunch of reporters: If I seem unduly clear to you, you must have misunderstood what I said.

If you persist through this disturbing stage, however, you eventually get to the third stage: Conscious Competence. Youve spent time reading, practising, asking questions. The haze is beginning to lift. You have flashes of understanding. Results that seemed impossible yesterday are manifesting today. But you need to stay alert. As long as you are conscious, you are fairly competent in your new skill.

And then one day, you hit the final stage: Unconscious Competence. You have become proficient, you dont even have to think about it anymore. You are now an insider in that strange new country you stepped into some time ago. Then all was foggy. Now you bat with the right words, you field with the right questions. Youre one of them.

Its like learning to play the piano. You start by playing one finger at a time and its so frustrating, you want to give up and go home. But you persist and you curse and you persist. And then, one day what do you know youre playing the piano. With both hands. Eyes closed. Its gone from head knowledge to body knowledge.

Its magic.

The thumb rule about learning anything new is: Stay with the discomfort. It will pass.

Most people want to go from knowing nothing to becoming a genius in one shot. Pronto. But theres a lot of muddling along the way. Theres a nice story about a musical genius who gave a magnificent performance. After the show, a fan came running to him and said: Maestro you are a genius. To which he turned around and said: Ah yes, but before I was a genius, I was nothing.

Six years ago, I had some free time and with much enthusiasm, decided to learn tennis. I bought a racket, found a good coach and marched off to learn the game. I had visions of myself playing tennis by winter. In fact, I was the worst student on the court, which was especially humiliating considering everyone else there was under the age of 12. A few frustrating weeks later, I gave up thinking: Its too difficult. I am never going to be able to learn this.

If I had know then what I know now, I may just have had a terrific backhand today.

Simran Bhargava has been a writer and editor for several years. She writes a weekly coloumn on the business of life. She can be contacted at simranonsaturday@yahoo.co.in