I Learned To Believe In Me

This article, by Kirsten Olson, appears in the current edition of Phi Delta Kappan.

Students at Urban Academy in New York City

What are the attributes and habits of “great” learners? What do their learning lives look like, and what beliefs do they hold about themselves that they might share with the rest of us? How can learners build personal, individual resilience when they’re in academic programs that sometimes seem intent on focusing on their failures, highlighting what they’re not good at, or making judgments based on previous unsuccessful performances? What if no interventions are available to them, or the available interventions are ineffective or off the mark?

For 10 years, I’ve been listening to people tell their learning stories, and my latest book describes how the institution of school can sometimes hamper our deepest and most profound desires to learn. Virtuoso learning is a lifelong fascination of mine, not so much because I’m interested in high performance as it’s conventionally defined, but because the learning attributes of extremely engaged, muscular, entrepreneurial learners have seeds of wisdom, based in practical experience and a lot of road miles, that would be helpful for everyone.

In my research over the past decade, documenting the learning biographies of hundreds of people ages 11 to 67 — I’ve learned first and perhaps most important, that many great learners — research scientists, national-level marketing directors, social media entrepreneurs, writers, professors, community activists — were not necessarily conventionally successful in school. Many impassioned, creative learners said school actually hampered their desire to learn, and that they did a lot of their really animated learning far from school grounds and away from the probing eyes of teachers. As one said, “I might be reading about astrophysics online at home, but forget to turn in my science homework and fail the course.” This is heartening to many of my struggling students. I often tell them that some of the best learners I know were complete screwups in high school.

 Thinking of yourself as an entity always ripe for more development is a mark of learners who go boldly forward, ready to take on the world and live their own truths.

In the face of setback after setback, how did these great learners keep going in school? In the 1980s and early `90s, we used to believe that resilience (Bernard, 2004) and resilience for learners (Benson, 2006; Levine, 1994) was only for the lucky few, that it was some kind of intangible magic that couldn’t really be defined, and that it was fixed and inborn.

Now, we’re beginning to understand that learning resilience has some very basic, identifiable components and habits of mind. There are ways of thinking about setbacks and failures that tend to power individuals through hard times and keep them interested in themselves as creative thinkers and explorers even when much of the feedback they’re getting about their performance is very negative and globalized.  “Don’t even try to learn math,” one young African American man was told by his math teacher. “You’ll be flipping burgers for the rest of your life.” He’s now a junior in college on a merit scholarship.

Based on my interviews with hundreds of learners over the past decade, we know that great learners tend to have seven traits and characteristics, learning “habits” that keep them interested and engaged in some of the pleasurable aspects of thinking and creating, even as they experience parts of school as grinding and uninteresting. They’ve developed a kind of “visioning,” often unconsciously, that makes them very “gritty” (Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, & Kelly, 2007) and persistent while they’re learning new things.

7 critical orientations toward learning

1. Great learners see learning as pleasurable and value and cherish this pleasure.

Although a lot of school learning isn’t intriguing or powerful, resilient learners seem to stubbornly create opportunities to experience the joy of learning, of being in flow (Csikszentmihalyi, 2008), even when it gets them in trouble. Driven by curiosity or a sense of play, they stubbornly find opportunities to learn (practicing basketball for hours, collecting bootleg recordings of a favorite band, or pursuing their writing), even when it doesn’t accrue to academic performance. One young woman told me, “There was always something mechanical about school, a mold I never fit into, never quite understood. Although I knew inside that my writing was powerful and artistic, I was unwilling to make myself vulnerable to someone else’s critique. The years of frustration and failures had taken a toll on my confidence and I found myself unable to trust my own ability in the classroom.” But this young woman kept writing privately in a journal throughout high school and now is studying to become a teacher of young children in reading and writing. Another person recalled that at age 7, he developed a passionate interest in beavers and beaver dam building, collected books and watched online videos about beavers, and asked his mother to take him to a local stream to see if they could find beavers. Although he wasn’t doing well in school, he was a great learner about beavers. He’s now a graduate student in architecture.

Intensive learning, we know, is different from just messing around, because it involves focused concentration and a sense of challenge (Shernoff, 2002), along with a powerful drive to know. When we’re just messing around, say checking status updates on Facebook, we may be learning something, and it’s pleasurable, but the task isn’t especially challenging. Intensive learning on the other hand — for instance, researching the question of whether social networks on Facebook can, ironically, lead to a sense of isolation and interpersonal social awkwardness in some individuals — means we’re engaged in an ambiguous task that involves challenge, opportunities to fail, an unclear endpoint, and questions we don’t know the answer to, but are deeply interesting to us. This drive to engage in intensive learning, it should be noted, is pleasurable when learners actively choose the activity or question, and are doing something they value.

Simply having the experience of pleasure in learning, and noticing it, is one of the greatest drivers of cognitive engagement, and it’s one that resilient learners tap into to fuel themselves through tough spots, since real learning means taking risks and failing, and often failing BIG. (Every “great” learner I’ve interviewed knows that failure is a huge part of the enterprise.) Great learners’ sense of pleasure in exploration tends to make them ambitious, self-disciplined, and persistent (Duckworth et al., 2007), not because they fear bad grades, a parental talking- to or other consequences, but because the subject speaks to them in some passionate way. Pleasure in learning means you do it more, which builds practice, and practice builds expertise, which leads to more pleasure.

2. Great learners are effort theorists who have learned the hard way that effort is more important than “inborn” ability.

Jonathan Mooney, author of a bestselling book about growing up with learning differences, told me, “In 2nd grade, we all had desks lined up in a row like work stations in a factory. I tried to sit still, but I couldn’t. Five seconds into class, my whole body was moving — hands, feet, arms. I was pointed at, ordered to stop moving, to control myself. Miss C, my teacher yelled, `Jon, what’s wrong with you?’ The rest of the day was spent in the hallway, my spirit evaporating into thin air. I was the bad kid, the stupid one, with the terrible handwriting, spelling, and reading. The feeling ate away at my sense of self like battery acid.” Diagnosed with ADHD, Mooney didn’t learn to read until he was 12 — a common story for some of the outstandingly accomplished individuals I’ve interviewed.

In high school, Mooney self-medicated through drinking. He tried to be conventionally successful and win acclaim through sports, but he couldn’t shake a feeling of self-loathing and shame. He knew he had something, but he couldn’t demonstrate it in school. Mooney won his way into college on his soccer skills, but floundered and dropped out after a year. On a dare, Mooney flew to Brown University in Providence, R.I., and hung out outside the admissions office for a full day until someone finally agreed to see him and interview him. Improbably, Brown admitted him. Although he struggled initially to build the necessary skills to be successful at such a demanding institution, he met another student with ADHD, wrote a book about his learning experiences, ultimately graduated with a 4.0 in English literature (a major he was told was much too hard for him), and founded Project Eye-to-Eye, an international advocacy group for individuals with learning differences. Mooney became convinced that his effort to develop his skills and talents would determine his success, not innate or inborn ability. A world of cognitive literature supports Mooney’s conclusion (Dweck, 2007). Thinking of yourself as an entity always ripe for more development is a mark of learners who go boldly forward, ready to take on the world and live their own truths.

3. Great learners tend to have a strengths-based view of themselves and others, focusing on what they’re good at instead of what they don’t do so well.

This attitude is at the heart of learning resilience. Ned Hallowell, my friend and a psychiatrist who writes about the childhood roots of happiness, satisfaction in marriage, and breakthrough models of business leadership, says in his new book, Shine, “I use a strengths-based model rather than the traditional deficit-based model [still common in school]. When I meet a new client or patient, I immediately start looking for talents, interests, and strengths — qualities the individual him or herself may actually be blind to.” Great learners have figured out, in honest and clear ways, what they excel at, and they practice being satisfied with those traits.

Great learners question the labels the institution gives them and ultimately know they must be the authors of their own lives.

Although her intuitive ability to understand what others were thinking and feeling did not help her be very successful in school, one of my interviewees who is now a gifted social worker told me, “I value and honor the talents I naturally have. I always knew I had insights that were important, and now I use them in my work every day.” The most empowered learners I know look candidly at what they aren’t doing well at that moment (they hear helpful critiques), but they also tend to focus on their strengths. They have a kind, enlarging view of themselves, which helps them see others in the same way.

4. Great learners practice letting go of negative emotions, of flipping the script on what might be regarded as a failure.

After choking on a major test or learning event, being rejected by a friend, or being yelled at unfairly by a coach, one interviewee said, “You can hold on to that, ruminate, fester with it,” which actually reinforces the feeling from a neurobiological point of view (Hanson & Mendius, 2009). Or you can let it go.

We have increasing evidence that if you spend a lot of time brooding about failures and disappointments, you’re actually sculpting your brain to be receptive to those feelings by wiring and rewiring it to easily go into those worn grooves and neurosynaptic pathways. Learning to let go of negative experiences is one of the most powerful lessons resilient learners described. As one said, “I try to take away what’s going to be useful to me, and then actively release the feeling of failure and shame. I have a mental image for this, of releasing my hands of the feeling into a stream and letting the stream carry it away.” Increasingly, there is neurobiological evidence of the validity of this practice.

5. Great learners are unusual problem solvers who know how to ask for help. They excel at reframing their difficulties.

When he dropped out of his first college, Jonathan Mooney could have seen that event as the end of the line, the summation of all his past failure. Instead, he rethought the whole paradigm, wrapped up all those troubles, and crafted them into an opportunity to rethink his way of doing things. He was able to explain his approach clearly enough to a Brown admission officer that he was accepted there and offered a chance to discover himself intellectually.

However, Mooney didn’t become an unusual problem solver on his own. Great learners have friends and supporters, and they value connectedness. He speaks frequently about the individuals who helped him grow into who he is, who believed in him even when he was screwing up, and who aided him in getting book contracts and fellowships and starting a business.

No young adult I’ve studied has been successful without a supporter or a team, a pit crew that helped them reframe seeming insurmountable difficulties, refueled them, and helped give them a strategy to stay in the race. If we have opportunities to support a kid who seems to be screwing up, we could be saving that kid’s life. It’s important to be a member of someone else’s team in addition to having one ourselves.

 6. Great learners don’t let the institution of school define them. Instead, they practice “adaptive distancing,” a capacity to accept the institution’s gifts without being wholly defined by its feedback.

If resilient learners are tracked into a low-challenge class in high school and that tends to become reinforcing, they don’t let this become their identity. They exercise healthy resistance to institutional labeling. For instance, from 5th grade onward, Marie was tracked into low-level math classes, although she enjoyed math puzzles and sudoku at home. She could see that she had math skills that didn’t show up in school. Her guidance counselor encouraged her to speak up for herself and her own learning. Institutions of education can be lazy, mistaken, and trapped in their own narrow views of people. The healthiest and best learners I know take their education very seriously, but they regard themselves as “the authors of their own minds.” They don’t let the institution tell their story as learners, and they develop counter-narratives when things aren’t going well. Great learners question the labels the institution gives them and ultimately know they must be the authors of their own lives.

7. Finally, great learners have passions.

An abundant research literature describes the importance of passion, curiosity, and deep interests in helping to lead us through a welter of life difficulties (Werner & Smith, 1982, 1992). And we know it to be true in our own lives. Passionate antique collectors, bird watchers, bridge players, and Pittsburgh Steelers fans have a passion to learn about a topic that adds zest to their lives in ways little else can.

My youngest son, Sam, who has always been interested in nature, evolution, and Darwinism (at age 5, he said he wanted to be an environmental lawyer so he could take people to court who were hurting the environment), last year was diverted from studying for an AP biology exam because he also discovered a profound passion for acting. What a wealth of passions! As a mom, I’m trying to walk the line I believe, which is that his passions matter more than anything and are ultimately his greatest teachers. So, if he doesn’t score quite as well on his biology exam, but does appear in his own self-authored play at a student-directed drama festival, I say he’s learning. Great learners let their passions lead them, and nurturing and protecting them is a critical job for us as parents and teachers.

Great learners offer a powerful recipe for resilience in learning. They follow their passions and aren’t afraid to be unconventional. In being unconventional, they may have suffered innumerable failures, but they’ve also figured out that failing is deeply and inextricably tied to learning — and that they can’t learn things without messing up. As adults, they live their learning lives with zest and curiosity, “ready to explore the world that’s out there,” as one award-winning physician told me. The social worker with deep intuitions and empathy who learned to appreciate her strengths as a learner late in life describes this best when she said, “I learned to believe in me.” And since we’re coming to understand that learning resilience is ordinary magic that can be strengthened with practice, it’s a kind of gusto that all of us can develop… with a little help from our friends.

by Kirsten Olson

Phi Delta Kappan, September, 2011, V93 N1

Kappan also prepared a downloadable Professional Development Discussion Guide for this article available at kappanmagazine.org.


Benson, P. (2006). All kids are our kids: What communities must do to raise caring and responsible children and adolescents. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Bernard, B. (2004). Resiliency: What we have learned. San Francisco, CA: WestEd.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2008). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, NY: Ballantine.

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 1087-1101.

Hallowell, E. (2011). Shine: Using brain science to get the best from your people. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Hanson, R. & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New York, NY: New Harbinger.

Levine, M. (1994). Educational care: A system for understanding and helping children with learning problems at home and at school. New York, NY: Educators Publishing Service.

Shernoff, D. (2002). Flow states and student engagement in the classroom. Statement to the California State Assembly Education Committee, Feb. 27. http://www.amersports.org/library/ reports/8.html

Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1982). Vulnerable but invincible: A longitudinal study of resilient children and youth. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Werner, E. & Smith, R. (1992). Overcoming the odds: High- risk children from birth to adulthood. New York, NY: Cornell University Press.


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