I can't learn
July 26, 2007 9:16 PM   Subscribe

is it possible for one to lose the ability to learn?

I have basically convinced myself that I am incapable of learning or expressing myself anymore. I pretty much know that that's a false statement. But I'm very concerned about my habits of learning and doing. I'm very tense these days, trying to finish a soundtrack I've been working on for over a year, trying to get better at producing music and writing screenplays (I'm involved in something of a film collective where I live). Basically, I feel like a hack. I'm involved in a lot of creative projects that I have no idea how to start or finish. I'm in college for at least another year and a half so I figure I have some time to figure things out. But pretty much all of my friends are beginning their careers and I'm only just figuring out that I don't have what it takes to run with them. I'm studying music in school and have gone through too many schools to change my major now. Besides, I want to be a composer. And I do want to write screenplays as well. I know I am capable of doing both but I am so much an amateur that I feel like I won't actually be qualified to work on a creative project until another 10 years of learning and relearning. I am 21 years old and can't seem to think logically or rationally. I am basically afraid that I will be a boy for the rest of my life. does that happen? can one be doomed to a life without interests or worse, without the backbone to pursue such interests?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't see what losing the ability to learn has to do with it, but maybe you left that part out. You just sound creatively frustrated to me. You're only 21. Everybody's been there. Lots of filmmakers and composers don't create their magnum opus until much later. But who cares, really, because you shouldn't use other people as a measuring stick for yourself. Just try to keep getting better. Be satisfied with the knowledge that you're better now than you were six months or a year ago.

Focus on accessible tasks so as not to burn yourself out. Set goals for yourself that will be a challenge, but are not completely out of reach. i.e., write a sonata now and a symphony later. Write a short film now and write a feature later.
posted by ludwig_van at 9:31 PM on July 26, 2007

Losing the ability to learn is separate from being doomed to a life without interests or a backbone. I'm not convinced you need to be worried about either one right now.

If you're stuck on something, e.g. you mentioned a soundtrack, take a step back and create something smaller. Tiny, even. You might not write "classical" music, but the composer J. N. Hummel wrote a series of tiny little preludes that are around 15-30 seconds each; maybe making small little things like that will help to remind you of your creativity, and get you unstuck.

And from what I've seen, feeling like a hack often just means you're not totally full of yourself.
posted by tepidmonkey at 9:58 PM on July 26, 2007

Forget about what your friends are doing, they all feel the same as you. It's pretty easy to fake success.
posted by borkingchikapa at 10:03 PM on July 26, 2007

"I am 21 years old and can't seem to think logically or rationally"

... and you think this makes you different how, exactly?

This fear you have of being stuck and being a boy for the rest of your life and being passed up by friends who are starting careers, this is all very normal in my own experience and in that of many of my friends. Even those who feel more secure in life tend to feel like any day now somebody is going to come along and figure out they are a fraud in their chosen career.

I don't have any advice for how you get through the specifics of this; I just want you to know it is normal to feel this way, that you aren't damaged in any way, and that things will change. Of course, then they will change again, and again, forever. That's life.
posted by foobario at 10:19 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

It is possible to lose your ability to learn, but I'm sure it hasn't happened to you.

High fever can fry the hippocampus, and in extreme cases the result is a person who can't learn anything at all. They are totally unable to form long term memories.

This goes far beyond "I am having a hard time absorbing information from a book." Such a person literally forms no memories at all. For them it is forever the day on which the damage took place. If you visit such a person, then walk out of the room for five minutes, and return, they will deny that they've seen you that day -- because they cannot remember it happening. All they have is short term memory. It's a disastrous form of brain damage, and I suppose it should be obvious that victims must be confined and cared for closely.

If you remember anything that happened yesterday, or if you can tell me what you had for breakfast this morning, then you are still able to learn.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:21 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You're so young! You are putting so much pressure on yourself to know and understand everything about yourself and you haven't even barely had a chance to learn that yet. Take a breath - or two - or a year's worth. Follow what excites you! Even if that means not meeting other people's expectations. Perhaps especially if it means not meeting expectations.

If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that NO ONE knows what they're doing -- we all just muddle along. Some people just hide their lostness better than others. But know that a lot of people do things that don't make them happy and they never have the courage to change or grow - use that to motivate yourself to truly follow your heart.
posted by loiseau at 10:23 PM on July 26, 2007

I am basically afraid that I will be a boy for the rest of my life.

When I was a kid, I had this expectation that at some point there would be a threshold I would cross and suddenly become an adult. When I reached age 30 I was still wondering when it was going to happen.

Now I know that I am still a boy, and I'm a man too. You don't lose anything, you just gain.

"The only difference between men and boys
is the size of their lies and the price of their toys."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:24 PM on July 26, 2007 [4 favorites]

I'm involved in a lot of creative projects that I have no idea how to start or finish.

This is the key, I think. You are overextended, and therefore stressed, and stress plays havoc with the level of concentration needed to learn and focus.

You need to discard some of the less critical projects and focus on finishing the one or two projects most important to you. And don't forget that when you're engaged in creative work you absolutely must schedule in some off-time so you can recharge your batteries. A half-hour walk, an occasional break to chat or read or just hang with friends, is not a luxury, it's a necessity.

You cannot do everything at once. Life is surprisingly long and you'll feel better once you've learned how to pace yourself.
posted by zadcat at 11:28 PM on July 26, 2007

When you're 21, everybody's art sucks. You get better at it. It's like everything that human beings do. You want to learn to do a thing, you start, and you suck... and you suck... and you suck... then you suck a little less... and a little less than that... then you don't suck... then you get better... eventually you're doing brilliant stuff.

And at that point, you look back and see that some of the stuff you thought sucked at the time was actually pretty good.

And that some of the stuff you thought was brilliant, really wasn't.

And you grow.

But the key, and I cannot stress this enough, is to just keep doing. Don't think about it so much. Just make stuff.

Some of it won't suck.

And that percentage will go up as you do it more.

Just keep moving forward. Be like Alexander the Great - just keep conquering. You can't know what your future holds. So believe that it holds you conquering the world.
posted by MythMaker at 11:29 PM on July 26, 2007

I think MythMaker nailed it with: And that percentage will go up as you do it more.

The great composers and screenwriters of our time didn't start with masterpieces. Someone here said something along the lines of "you don't see the 500 discarded manuscripts of the great authors" in the Blue. Just keep at it, and try not to stress yourself out (there's good advice on this thread, and others like it).

Most of all, create create create. Just keep creating. Don't hold yourself back. Something will strike a chord (ha, pun totally intended), and when it does, you'll feel a lot more confident in both your ability to learn and to make quality art. Both creating and learning are not natural flows (initially). These things take time, and I get the impression that this is a common dilemma for people in the creative fields.

A relevant quote:
"The hardest thing in the world is to be good and clear when creating anything. It's the hardest thing in the world. It's really easy to be obscure and elliptical and so fucking hard to be good and clear. It breaks people. Because you don't often get encouragement to do that, to be good and clear." -Steven Soderbergh
posted by spiderskull at 12:14 AM on July 27, 2007

I have basically convinced myself that I am incapable of learning or expressing myself anymore.

Well, clearly you have a good imagination. You just made up a huge fake problem for yourself.

Every single professional ever in the history of the universe started out as an amateur.

Get out there and fucking do it! No one else will do it for you.
posted by Ookseer at 12:58 AM on July 27, 2007

Wow! I convinced myself of the same thing, also when I was in my early 20s. For me, it started over something really dumb: driving. Unlike most of my friends, I didn't learn to drive when I was a teen. I also didn't rebel or feel trapped at home, so I didn't have a burning need to zoom away somewhere. Driving was just something that seemed practical and I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn't do it. So at about 21, I tried to learn and found that I couldn't master any of the difficult stuff, like parallel parking.

This made me start thinking about what I HAD mastered lately. And I realized that the answer was nothing. I tried to think back to the last thing I'd really learned. I was in college, so of course I was reading and taking classes and memorizing stuff, but had I really learned any new skills or disciplines in the last few years? Had I learned to cook or play an instrument or program a computer or drive a car? No. But I could point to a ton of unfinished projects -- unfinished because I'd tried to learn some new thing and failed.

For about five years, I was convinced I couldn't learn anymore. Then I was forced to learn some complex technical stuff for a job -- and I got over it. In my late 20s, I realized that I COULD learn, and it was like a sunbeam entered my heart. From that point on, what's defined me more than anything else is my love of learning. I learn for the sheer joy of it.

But I've often reflected on what went wrong in my early 20s. Here are my best guesses: as I'm sure you know, children are "learning machines." Children master tons of new skills, almost without trying. As they age, they slowly stop being able to do this. That is, they can still learn, but it starts requiring more and more effort.

But no one tells you that. No one says, "You can still learn, son, but you have to work on it!" If you can do something easily, and all of the sudden that same ease doesn't get you anywhere, it's pretty natural to think you just can't do it anymore. Natural, but wrong. And I think that somewhere around 20, that childhood ease completely shuts off.

Some people don't notice this, because at 20 they're so caught up in their social lives. Also, when people are in school, they often confuse "going to classes" and "taking tests" with learning. Those things can connect to learning, of course, but they don't necessarily do so. And there's a world of difference between passing a History test and, say, composing music or writing a computer program.

Here's the bad news: as an adult, LEARNING IS HARD.

Here's the god news: as an adult, LEARNING IS POSSIBLE.

In addition to being a learner, I've spend most of my adult life as a teacher (of adults), and I've seen over and over that most people WAY underestimate the amount of work they have to do in order to really learn something. So I put it to you that -- as much as this may suck to hear -- if you're not learning, you're not trying hard enough.

And by not trying hard enough, I don't mean you're not straining your brain enough, I mean you're not spending enough time doing the nuts-and-bolts things that anyone CAN do but most people don't want to do: research, brainstorming, trial-and-error attempts, getting help, memorization... AND WORKING PAST FAILURE. Failing is part of learning. If you fail and give up, you're not giving the process its due.

Remember, when you were younger, you didn't have to do all this stuff (or you did it unconsciously). Now you have to do it.

Another stumbling block is that, once the childhood rush is over, learning becomes about the carrot and the stick. We learn, we get a good grade; we don't learn, we get a wrap on the knuckles. It's a horrible habit that our culture hurls us into. I hate it. I hate what it does to people. It makes people have a hard time learning when someone's not standing over them, enticing them with candy and putting the fear of God into them. Get over it. Crack open the book. The reward is mastery. There's no punishment other than non-mastery.

And get over your ego. Learning isn't about proving how smart you are or "being original." You can't control whether or not your compositions are original, and art dies when the artists is more concerned about originality than what he's trying to say. It's not about you, it's about what you're trying to learn or what you're trying to produce. Everything else is gratuitous.

One more real-life example: I direct plays. I'm forever plagued with actors who don't adequately learn their lines. I've heard every excuse. I don't buy them. The only REAL excuse is, "I'm sorry. I haven't learned my lines because I was unwilling to try hard enough."

I know this, because I sometimes act. In the last couple of years, I've played some lead parts. Hundreds and hundreds of lines to learn. And I SUCK at memorization. Most of the other actors were able to learn the lines -- at least somewhat -- just by going over them multiple times in rehearsal. Not me. (And by the way, to me it's a major failing if I say "too" when the script says "also." I insist that I learn the EXACT lines.)

Here's how I leaned my lines (the only way I COULD learn them). If the line was, "Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation..." I would take the first few words, "Conversation should be pleasant," and say them over and over -- about 200 hundred times. I actually have one of these little clicker-counters, so that I can make sure I'm saying the words enough times. Then, once I'd done that, I'd move onto the next few words, overlapping a bit: "be pleasant without scurrility," and do those for 200 times. Bit by bit, I'd work through the whole play that way.

Sometimes, the next day, I'd find that despite my best efforts, yesterdays lines hadn't been saved to my permanent memory. So I'd go back and repeat the whole ritual. It took me about three weeks of doing this, maybe three hours a day, to memorize the play. But I did it.

It would be SO easy for me to say that it's impossible for me to memorize lines. It feels that way at times. But it's not true. It's painful, but I can do it. And so when an actor tells me he can't memorize lines, I ask him whether or not he went through my process.

posted by grumblebee at 7:59 AM on July 27, 2007 [5 favorites]

Worry less.

Fretting doesn't make you safer. It doesn't keep you from failing. It just paralyzes you.

Give yourself permission to create crap.

Early, harsh judgement makes many artists needlessly miserable.

Your anguish comes from focusing on the results of your creativity, and the results of your life. Try focusing your attention on creating and living instead. This can be very hard to do, but will make you feel worlds better. Do not waste one drop of sweat worrying about how well your soundtrack will turn out. Spend your sweat composing it at the best of your ability in the moment.

If you focus on doing your very best work in the moment, and you still create crap, all it means is that you have more to learn. There is no shame in that, and anyone who makes you feel bad about it is toxic and shouldn't be in your life.

Finish things. Make it a habit. Finished crap is much more valuable than unfinished genius. Finished crap leads to finished crap minus one and ultimately to finished good stuff.

Unfinished genius leads to more unfinished stuff and much self-loathing.

When you feel bad about any of this, write about it. Either in music or in script pages. Use it, don't allow it to stop you.

Finally, read The War Of Art for more encouragement.

Good luck. Now go write something!
posted by ScarletPumpernickel at 8:24 AM on July 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

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