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10 Obstacles That Prevent Positive Transformation

Transformative learning is challenging and takes place only through practice, patience, and perseverance. Indeed, these three qualities are the hallmarks of a committed learner. The only way to embody a new competence is through recurrent practice, which takes time and requires patience. The committed learner must continue to practice, persevering through doubt, weariness, negative assessment and the occasional rotten mood.

Consider these tips on how to effectively deal with forces that prevent learning and, thus, transformative forward momentum:

1. Being blind to your blindness. We all have blind spots. These are normal, natural, and common, but they limit us. Books, lectures, and recordings can help us see new possibilities for learning, as can asking a friend or co-worker for an honest assessment of our actions. The number one enemy of learning is “knowing,” or more precisely, the assumption of knowing, which can readily render you visionless. By recalibrating the lens through which you view the world, and your understanding of it, and actively seeking new knowledge, opinions and insights is a key opening a wealth of possibility.


2. The desire to be comfortable. Comfort is a formidable enemy. When confronted with new ideas, most people react strongly…and not in a favorable, amenable way. When our familiar patterns, associations, and responses are challenged, we tend to respond with fear and anger. Because our minds cling to stability and predictability, we tend to judge something new as “dangerous” or “disruptive.” Everyone is seemingly in favor of learning, though as long as it doesn’t mean them and it doesn’t mean now.   The array of excuses, dodges, and delays we toss out can be astonishing. In short, beware of the perfectly natural desire for comfort. Unfortunately, comfort and authentic learning are mutually exclusive. Simply put, you must get out of your comfort zone to transcend.

3. The insistence on understanding everything all the time. Any new idea or practice seems difficult, complicated, and unclear simply by virtue of it being new. Along with our desire for comfort and safety, we also crave understanding, falling prey to the notion that clarity yields safety and certainty. When an unfamiliar situation lacks clarity, we tend to label the agents of change as “wrong.” “If the coach really knew what he was talking about,” the quarterback grumbles after practice, “then this new offense wouldn’t be so confusing.” “If this is so great, then it should be easy to understand.” In both instances, a person grants himself permission to dismiss the new practice and retreat into the security of the familiar. That withdrawal closes the possibility for learning.

4. Confusing opinions with learning, and awareness with competence. An opinion is not the same as a thought. Thinking is the process of generating an original idea or distinction. It requires energy and attention while having an opinion requires neither. Under the sway of our opinions, we block opportunities for learning. This is because we think that because we have an opinion about something, we must “know” it. When we confuse awareness with learning, we mistakenly assume that a new awareness automatically equates to a new competence. The attainment of awareness and the development of competence are two entirely different processes.

5. Desire for instant gratification. We want it all, and we want it now. This “disorder” is especially prevalent in the business world. Developing genuinely new management practices requires months and often years of work. The more senior the executive, the more deeply embedded their style, and the longer it takes to learn and change. It’s foolish to assume that any two-day corporate retreat can prove sufficient for reshaping practices that have taken decades to establish. This approach can actually cause lasting harm to both organizations and individuals. Don’t be deluded by the zeitgeist of instant gratification. If you want to really learn, then you need to get past the quest for the magic pill, not get distracted by the latest and the greatest, and work to build new practices.

6. Thinking but not doing. We claim that while the mind understands, it is the body that actually learns. To develop better leadership skills, you can’t just study books, watch TV, and attend motivational lectures.  Developing new skills takes practice in real time with real people with real impacts and personal risk. Risk-taking entails dealing with fear, and fear lives in the body. It takes time to build capability and skills for coping with fear.  The mind understands, but the body learns and acts on that learning.

7. The drive for novelty. The quest for novelty can be debilitating and undermine your future. Under a media bombardment touting the latest fads, theories, and systems, the allure of the “next big thing” can be overwhelming. In the business world, this enemy shows up as the “buffet table” approach to training. The result is a “greatest hits” training program. Lacking coherence, however, the patchwork program fails to deliver. With no unifying design or structure, the result is a far cry from meeting expectations.   You cannot learn to be an effective leader by chasing after every new interpretation that comes along or trying to cherry-pick tips and techniques from a host of teachers.  Know what works for you and stick with it.

8. Living in constant assessment. When you’re exposed to something new, your mind’s first response is to assess or judge it. The most common and basic assessments are: I like/don’t like this, or I agree/disagree with this. These simple, automatic assessments close down the possibilities for authentic learning. If I like something, then I tend to quit listening as my mind moves quickly from liking to knowing: “I like this because it is like X, and I know X is true.” Similarly, if I don’t like something, then the mind tunes it out: “I don’t like this, therefore it must be wrong; if it is wrong then there is no reason to pay attention.”   Either assessment tranquilizes us into closing down the possibility that there is anything new to learn 


9. Characterization. We make up stories about ourselves and the world, but then we confuse these stories with reality. We also seize upon our incompetence in a single domain and cement that into the foundation of who we are. However, a lack of competence does not equate to a lack of character. The fact that someone can’t seem to hammer a nail straight doesn’t mean that person is dumb, lazy, uncoordinated e or incapable of learning. Far too often, we use a simple beginner’s mistake to start a story that begins with the line: “I can’t do this. I’m too old, too young, too busy, too fat, too uncoordinated. . . .” The ways to fill in the blank are endless. This self-sabotaging statement is often followed by another: “I’m not smart enough, I’m not fast enough, I’m not good enough; it’s too late for me.” Another variation on this narrative goes: “I can’t learn that; it’s too sophisticated, too complicated, too technical.” Common to all these statements is one underlying, unspoken theme: There’s something wrong with me. This unfounded interpretation, which chokes off learning and stunts our growth as human beings, is no less tragic for being so common. We should not let this stop us from living the lives we want.

10. The belief that we can or should learn on our own. This is dangerous for a number of reasons. It is too easy to fall prey to ungrounded assessments about how we are doing and delude ourselves into thinking that we are making great progress, or that we are not, when neither is the case.  Also, the reason that we typically attempt to learn on our own is that we are embarrassed to be a beginner in public.   Authentic, sustained learning is an inherently social process. We learn best and most easily in a community of committed learners.   If you create your own learning community, then you are likely to have the most success because learning is much easier when done with others who share the same ambition and commitment.

Majer concludes, “All of these enemies of learning have likely attacked you at one time or another. And, you are probably more vulnerable to some than to others. While fierce and relentless, these enemies are as insubstantial as shadows. Rather than manifestations of reality, they are elements in a story of our own creation, and, as we now know, we can change our stories and our actions. In doing so, we can change ourselves.”

Chris Majer, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Human Potential Project, is the author of “The Power to Transform: Passion, Power, and Purpose in Daily Life” (Rodale), which teaches the strategies corporate, military, and sports leaders have used to positively transform themselves and their organizations in a way readers can adept to their own lives and professions. He may be reached online at

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