Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Infinite Potential of Slow Learners

Yesterday I described how painfully slow and stupid I am in areas like home decorating. It's not a question of ignorance; I could spend years hobnobbing with designers and learning everything there is to know about upholstery and track lighting, but the practical application will always feel like alien territory. I'm not a natural. I'm slow. Slow enough to drive you batshit crazy.

And yet, although it took three years of painstaking work to outfit a house a few years ago....
"in the end, the place had the magical power to make anyone stepping into it feel absolutely comfortable and relaxed. It didn't make much of a visual impression; there was no particular design "impact". But neither did it look sloppy or mismatched. What hit you was the Vibe. I'd nailed it!"
That's not my only weak spot. I'm also slow at learning physical moves. I've driven several yoga teachers to near breakdowns with my thick-headed sluggishness. "Do this," they'd instruct the class, and I'd stare in dumbfounded confusion while the others simply did the move. They'd talk slooooowly to me and raise their volume, assuming me to be an idiot. But my mind isn't the problem. It just takes a while for my body to absorb new instructions.

At this point, I've practiced yoga for 35 years, and can do some really hard poses. I'd "impress" those same teachers if they saw me! And because it took decades, rather than months, to, say, plant my palms on the floor in a forward bend, I've learned an awful lot. Every millimeter of progress produced a tiny jewel of insight. If you watch me bend forward, you'll feel like something's happening. That's not true of naturally bendy people. They just bend!

I've tried over the years to take Salsa dance classes, because I love the music so much. But dance teachers are the sort of people who learn dance moves quickly, so it's impossible for them to relate to a below-average student who needs to practice each step dozens of times. Once a step sinks in, I can perform it with good feel (maybe more so than "naturals" can!). But it's tough to find a teacher with sufficient patience.

These are areas where I learn slowly, and that's just how it is. They will not get faster. But the important thing is that my potential in these realms is as high as anyone's. In fact, maybe a tad higher, because in taking my time and pondering minutiae, I go deeper.

In other areas, I'm super fast. I think fast and talk fast. I can leap from thought to connected thought with ease. It comes naturally. But when I grew up, there were kids in my class labeled as "slow". These kids were inferior; you couldn't expect much of value to pop out of their minds, because they are, after all, "slow". I always took that as a euphemism. They were damaged goods with hard limits.

Boy, was I wrong. I went on to meet many people whose intellects absorb facts and ideas with syrupy slowness. If you tell them something new, they'll need to mull it over. But sometimes they'll digest it all into conclusions so novel, so rich, so damned brilliant that I'll realize that I, with my fast, jumpy mind, miss all sorts of intellectual goodness.

There are lots of consequences to all this. They could fill a book - a book that should be written, because this is all so little recognized. But here are a few points, in dense shorthand:

1. Slow learners are limited only in velocity, not in potential mastery.

2. Slow learning often yields richer results.

3. We're all slow learners in some realm.....but having been discouraged from using our slowest, richest faculties, those faculties usually remain stillborn, which is why many people never uncover their genius (everyone has genius).

4. The custom of leading with strengths and burying weaknesses creates great societal problems:
  • 4a. Educational systems favor fast learners and discourage slow learners.
    Consider my dance and yoga teachers. Or, for that matter, school gym teachers who, being fast-learning jocks, give up on slow-learning kids. This has had huge impact on national health and obesity. Athletics aren't just for the naturally athletic!
  • 4b. We lack empathy for slow learners in realms where we're fast.
    I've explored my slow areas, finding that slowness actually confers a certain edge. It's all been so destigmatized for me that I can relate to slow learners even in realms where I'm a natural. But most of us spend our lives recoiling from from our slow sides, which helps perpetuate the ignorantly condescending attitude I outgrew. Again: slow learners are limited only in velocity, not in potential mastery! Say it loud: I'm slow and I'm proud!
  • 4c. We group people by their fortes.
    This makes sense; everyone offers society the cream of their ability. But to segregate by natural forte is to make the wrong distinction. If I'd followed that momentum, I'd have quit yoga, dance, and sports. Instead, those are the realms where I'm happiest (if this article reads well, I'll feel satisfied. But the ultimate success of that house gave me way more satisfaction than my writing - which comes easily - ever could!).


Deven Black said...

Schools are factories and need to run on a regular schedule of production. Unfortunately for the school systems, students are irregular. Some students take too long to learn in one or more subjects and they gum up the works. Rather than school adapting to the schedules of the students, school demands that students conform to standards and there are quality controls (standardized tests) to make sure the teachers don't behave like Lucy and Ethel in the chocolate factory.

It is increasingly possible to get a great education without submitting to the tyrany of the factory/school. When students make the move out of the classroom and into the world of self-directed learning they can learn on their schedule and, with the change of the learning context, so-called learning disabilities disappear.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I'm a slow learner and started dancing at 25. I come back to this article again and again to remind myself it's ok I'm taking this long to learn something. It can get demotivating when dancing all the time among people that started dancing in their teens or even earlier. You have no idea how much your article has helped me. A million thanks!

Jim Leff said...

My great pleasure. Faster-learning people do not have your potential. Don’t forget to be great; you can be more than competent, despite the additional overhead required to reach competency.

I’m aphasic. Can’t think of words. I stare vacantly at the screen for 10 minutes a lot. I have lost ALL my impatience with this. I simply consider it my process. I don’t care how I look and I don’t care what it takes. All that matters is outcome, and nobody has to know how hard I worked or what an idiot I actually am. I can fool them with my result.

Don’t forget that there are literally no limits to your outcome. And your slow process is a superpower.

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