No pain, no gain: Why doing (learning) something is better than doing nothing

When you don’t understand something or feel confused as you study, what do you do?

A. Consider dropping the subject
B. Say to yourself, “You’re stupid!”
C. Procrastinate by going to the fridge to get a snack
D. Embrace the pain and keep going

Most of us do A, B and/or C: we give up far too easily.

Don’t understand something in the first minute? Sorry! I can’t do it! It’s too hard!

Why do we give up so easily?

It comes down to two reasons…

1. Our brain hurts

When you feel confused by a new concept, your brain cries, “Ouch!”

So what do most of us do?

We seek relief from this pain. We jump on Facebook, Netflix or YouTube. We bake 24 chocolate muffins. We sleep it off with a 3-hour power nap. And our brain breathes a sigh of relief.

2. We misinterpret the confusion and pain

When you feel confusion or pain while learning, you may make it mean that something is wrong and/or you’re not particularly good at the subject. (This is how you justify baking 24 muffins instead of doing your work).

But don’t misread the signals.

You need to understand that when pain strikes, nothing is wrong. Everything is actually just as it should be.

Do you want to know why learning new material can be so difficult?

It’s because you’re just starting out. You’re a beginner. An amateur. And that’s not a bad thing. Remember, even total pros started out as amateurs.

Here’s the problem with giving up so easily…

The more you avoid the subject, the more confused you’re going to become. And this means you’re going to fall behind even more. You may miss the foundational building blocks that you need to advance in the subject. And eventually you’ll bomb out.

As learning expert Barbara Oakley states in her great book A Mind for Numbers:

“Students who are beginning to struggle in math and science often look at others who are intellectual racehorses and tell themselves they have to keep up. Then they don’t give themselves the extra time they need to truly master the material, and they fall still further behind. As a result of this uncomfortable and discouraging situation, students end up unnecessarily dropping out of math and science.”

So the question is, what does it take to master a skill or subject?

Too easily we forget that it takes years of training to develop expertise in a particular area. Seven-time world surf champion Layne Beachley has said, “I wasn’t born a world champion. I just worked really hard to become one.”

How hard did she work? She surfed for 5 hours a day (often in rough conditions).

The same thing applies with your studies. No one is born good at maths, science or English. You need to work at these subjects to improve.

Do something mediocre to move forward

In his book Show your work! artist Austin Kleon writes about the gap between being mediocre and being good at something. Sure, it’s a big gap. But Kleon says that even if you’re mediocre at something at least you’re on the spectrum. When you’re on the spectrum you can get better in small increments. Hey,there’s hope!

Kleon points out that the real gap lies between doing nothing and doing something. Because when you do nothing, you get nothing. Everything stays exactly the same.

So do something (something small). Get on the spectrum. And as you’re progressing in small steps, make sure that you go easy on yourself.

What can you do today to move forward with a subject or skill you’ve been struggling with? Feel free to post your goal/commitment/intention below!

6 thoughts on “No pain, no gain: Why doing (learning) something is better than doing nothing


    1. Hahaa, that’s it Pam! Keep at it 🙂

      I’m learning how to use a piece of software called ‘Screenflow’ (video editing software) to help me create online courses.
      It was overwhelming at first but then I got out a children’s book on video editing from the library and did a few simple online tutorials/webinars.
      Now I’m thinking, “I can do this!”

      Persevere Pam!

      Jane 🙂

  2. I’m gonna finish a book on difficult people (rather than avoiding it and leaving for “another day”) and then start reading reccommended books for my uni subjects to get better understating of what’s waiting for me next academic year. The reccommended reading scares me so much- lots of books on different things, lots of information to acquire. But the sooner I start the better.

    1. Hi Kat!

      You’re right – the sooner you start, the better!
      Last minute rushed learning is not a lot of fun and is rarely effective (you need time to deeply digest the information).

      I’ve started carrying around a card in my pocket where I write down all the things I’ve been avoiding.
      It increases my awareness of the things that scare me. At least then I have a choice to do something about it (keep procrastinating/avoiding or just get on with it!).

      Here’s to feeling scared and doing the reading anyway!

      Jane 🙂

  3. Hi Jane, I’m studying computer science in the U.S. and I’m struggling with the workload. I have doubted my capabilities and always wanted to give up. Your articles are really relatable to my situations at times and I just never knew what to do besides procrastinating. Thanks to your motivating articles, I am able to come through and continue to strive for success. Just want to let you how inspiring your writings are and please never stop writing these encouraging messages:)

    1. Hi Laura,

      Thanks so much for your kind words.
      I’m so glad to hear my blogs have helped you.
      You’ve inspired me to write a blog post on dealing with heavy workloads and overwhelm 🙂

      Thanks again for your message.
      It means a lot.

      Jane G

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