You Were Taught to Be Average: The Secret Problem With How We Learn



Whether we believe that children are born with innate gifts and abilities, or that gifts are cultivated through experience, there is a clear disparity between how few people attain mastery, compared with how many people remain average. Here's the problem. There are too many people at low level, average level and good level, and too few people at expert level. Instead of questioning the failings of the learning system, we forgive it because we believe only a 'few people' are gifted and the majority are normal. This article is going to show that it is the fault of the learning structure, a system that does not teach excellence, but encourages average.


Society needs normal


The truth is that the learning we have received was not meant to make us experts. In fact, it was meant to make us average. This is because experts en masse are less helpful to society than average en masse.


Expertise can come in any discipline; excellent doctors, teachers, artists and athletes. You can have experts in chocolate, Harry Potter trivia, and grocery store inventory orders. In the same way, average can come in any discipline. For this article, I'm going to categorise poor performance, average performance and good performance under 'normal' and great and exceptional performance under 'expert'.


Despite thinking that a society would need more experts, it is actually apparent that society requires more normal levels of performance. For example, take the subject of money. Have you ever considered why schools do not teach about money? It's a pretty big subject to leave off the list. And yet, we do not learn about money at school. Nothing about credit card management, debt, interest rates or mortgages, we don't learn about how to identify invisible fees or setup bank accounts or private pensions. We don't learn about saving money, and we certainly don't learn about multiplying money.


Surely, money is one of the subjects that children and young adults absolutely must learn. Instead, we feed them a different agenda: "Money is not important to happiness." "There is more to life than money." "Don't chase money." This is not helpful to someone heading into the wider world, needing to make a living. The teaching has been purposefully vague. Why? Because society would actually not benefit from everyone being an expert on money.


Society does not want you to be rich


If everyone was good with money, everyone would understand stocks and shares, everyone would understand compounding interest, and everyone would need to work less for money because they would have money work for them. The only reason financial markets work is because there are misinformed people selling the lows and buying the highs. If everyone understood money there would be awareness of negative interest and hidden fees, there would be more skepticism over hidden taxes. People would be retiring younger, and creating their own private pension funds. Society benefits from people turning a blind eye and feeling helpless with money.


Experts en masse are less helpful to society than average en masse.

The next section is controversial and I don't mean to insult (I know that there are intelligent people working in all sectors). It is also the case that society needs people to fill in the work that others don't want to do, but have to be done. Society needs people to work unskilled jobs, and some industries need cheap labor. If every child was an expert, there would be less acceptance of certain types of work, and more expectation for work with fewer openings.


But what if it went further than employment? What if the way we taught dance, art and music were meant to teach average? Consider how few experts there are on an instrument compared to average. The same harsh reality applies. In all learning schemes, there is a triangle. The mass sit at the bottom, and the masters at the top. There are so few people at the tip of the triangle that we have to question the process of learning.


Be balanced not obsessed




Nothing appears on more spiritual posters than balance. For many, it is the goal of life. However, the missed opportunity with balance is that expertise comes from honing a single ability beyond balance. The greatest skateboarder of all time, Rodney Mullen, was given a skateboard at the age of 10, he would go into his dad's garage and skate for hours every day, even sneaking out at night. He was obsessed. His school work may have suffered, but his expertise in skating went through the roof, culminating in his invention of the flatground ollie, the first time someone could lift the skateboard into the air from the ground from standstill. His inventions became the foundation of skating as we know it today. Would this have been possible if he was not obsessed?


Numerous other stories, from Bill Gates and Elon Musk, to LeBron James and Roger Federer came from honing on a single obsession. However, we learn to be balanced and not to 'put all our eggs in one basket'. We prefer rounded individuals. Instead of being brilliant at one thing, we take the route of being average at many things.


Put up your hand if you know the answer


All learning is a process of receiving information, whether firsthand or via instruction. However, the problem with most information is that it is old. Instead of teaching creativity and the creation and discovery of new information we teach only the known. In Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich he calls this the difference between synthetic imagination and creative imagination. Synthetic imagination is learning via previous structures, while creative imagination is accessing our own built-in intelligence.


Information makes us feel smart. We have television shows like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, and University Challenge, that confuse 'knowing things' with intelligence. This is because schools teach us to know things. Exams are passed based on knowing things: "When was the battle of Agincourt?" "In what year did Henry VIII..." "What is the square root of..." We cram the heads of children with information instead of imagination. We like information, it gets us interviews and jobs, and we feel good at the dinner table when we announce things we know.


However, the memorising of information only takes you so far up the mastery ladder. The individuals at the top have honed their creativity and imagination. Instead of believing information was equal to intelligence, they used information as a base and developed their own ideas and style via experimentation, invention and creativity. Mastery is always individual. Where the majority of people learn to be similar, a few people break away from similarity to be masters.


Ashamed to succeed


Another interesting thing about expertise comes from our relationship with success. If someone achieves beyond their peer group, the person often feels shame, or impostor syndrome. They feel that they do not deserve their success, or ashamedly play down their talents and successes to others.


This learning is subconscious and happens deep in the limbic brain. We learn that self-achievement is selfish. It's the root of humility, don't tell people about how successful you are or how skilled you are, don't even mention how happy you are. We are on a primal level, tribal animals like wolves. This means that there is a sense of a shame when expertise isolates us from the community of our tribe and tribal history. For example, when I announced I wanted to be a globally recognised musician, my friend said to me "Why can't you just be content?" This subtle way of slowing people down and holding them back is due to tribal conditioning. In short, we don't like experts and we are suspicious of those who think differently.


We have learnt via the storing of information. This limits us to think like everyone else instead of develop our own creativity and path. It would not benefit society for everyone to have their own path, instead of following a pattern. Still, with all the potential ways to live life, we see the majority of people work, buy a property, get married, have children, and retire. It's not by accident.


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