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3 Things to Do When You Just Don’t Get an Idea

Move past confusion with three easy strategies to kickstart the brainstorming process.

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Have you been going through a class or course where you start to reach the confusion point that happens right before the deep insights emerge?

I’m here to share a few learning strategies that I’d implement with my students back when I was teaching, and figured they’d be useful to you, too. I’ll add strategies from two additional resources as well.

Some of the most important concepts you can learn are of the frustrating type that seem so obvious once you get them, but getting to that point can be demoralizing. Most of these concepts are ones you can’t force your way into learning – as with your lost keys, you have to stop looking at the ideas and then you can find them.

That’s when the Eureka! moment happens. Every teacher I know – myself included – loves it when they see their student get it.

So, a few quick strategies that’ll help you look away:

  • Go for a walk or hit the gym or yoga mat
  • Play some music and dance
  • Work in your garden
  • Clean your office
  • Explain the concepts to someone else

I’ve found that most people learn faster when they incorporate their body into the learning process. Your body is more than a head transportation vehicle – it’s a part of your total neural net and should be incorporated into your learning activities.

Confusion Is a Good Thing

Josh Kaufman’s book, The First 20 Hours: Mastering the Toughest Part of Learning Anything, shows that confusion during the learning process is actually a good thing. The second of his ten principles of effective learning is, “Jump in over your head.”

(Aside: this is a must-read for people who want to thrive in the info-heavy, on-demand world we live in.)

From the book:

Some of your early research will contain concepts, techniques, and ideas you don’t understand. Often, something will appear particularly important, but you’ll have no idea what it means. You’ll read words you don’t recognize, and see practitioners doing things you can’t fathom.

Don’t panic. Your initial confusion is completely normal. In fact, it’s great. Move toward the confusion.

[…]

Noticing you’re confused is valuable. Recognizing confusion can help you define exactly what you’re confused about, which helps you figure out what you’ll need to research or do next to resolve that confusion.

If you’re not confused by at least half of your early research, you’re not learning as quickly as you’re capable of learning. If you start to feel intimidated or hesitant about the pace you’re attempting, you’re on the right track.

The takeaway here is that being confused might mean that you’re on the right track for learning at your highest potential.

It’s an open pedagogical question as to how much we should challenge our students by throwing them in the deep end and then jumping in there with them. This happens to be my preferred pedagogical model precisely because my assumption is that my students are smart and committed and want the best results. I’d rather do my best to explain a meaty concept and answer questions they may have than stick to 101-level topics.

Don’t Create an Impasse for Yourself

David Rock’s Your Brain At Work – another fantastic must-read – explains that impasse experiences happen right before you have insights.

From the book:

It’s rather counterintuitive, but scientists have found that one of the best ways to understand insight is to understand what happens just before an insight occurs: the impasse experience. One of the scientists leading this research is Dr. Stellan Ohlsson, at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Ohlsson explains how when facing a new problem, people apply strategies that worked in prior experiences. This works well if a new problem is similar to an old problem. However, in many situations, this is not the case, and the solution from the past gets in the way, stopping better solutions from arising. The incorrect strategy becomes the source of the impasse.

[…]

Ohlsson’s research shows that people have to stop themselves from thinking along one path before they can find a new idea. “The projection of prior experience has to be actively suppressed and inhibited,” Ohlsson explains. “This is surprising, as we tend to think that inhibition is a bad thing, that it will lower your creativity. But as long as your prior approach is the most dominant, has the highest level of activation, you’ll get more refined variations of the same approach, but nothing genuinely new comes to the fore.” Here is this concept of inhibition from [an earlier part of the book] arising again. The ability to stop oneself from thinking is central to creativity.

[…]

This quirk of the brain [the fact that the pre-frontal cortex will generate the same solutions in the same way] also explains why other people can see answers to your problem that you can’t. Others are not locked into your way of thinking.

Let’s build on this. Trying to force yourself to learn something in the same way you’ve been trying only generates a conceptual impasse. Not only that, but it creates an emotional impasse because it creates a negative feedback loop – you’re frustrated because you’re not getting it, so you try all the harder to get it, but that only reinforces the same way you’ve been trying to get it, which only makes you more frustrated … until you decide that perhaps it’s time for that bottle of vino. Maybe two.

Be very careful of the story you tell yourself about your learning process. Even something as simple as changing the frame from “I’m not getting it” to “I’ve been having trouble understanding this and I know I’ll understand it when I’m ready” can make a huge difference.

“The ability to stop oneself from thinking is central to creativity,” from the excerpt from Your Brain At Work, is precisely why I recommend that people do physically engaging activities when they get stuck. Doing so gets you to stop thinking without your making an effort to stop thinking, which itself is self-defeating. Likewise, teaching someone else gets you out of your thought patterns without your actively trying.

So, let’s sum this all up:

  1. Switch to a different activity that gets you out of your head.
  2. Embrace confusion – it could mean you’ve set yourself up to learn at your highest level.
  3. Don’t create an impasse and spiral for yourself.

What do you do when you’re just not getting the idea?

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