From entity learner to incremental learner

If you know what this is, you win a prize

I’ve been reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and (no surprises) I’ve been learning a lot. Waitzkin was a top-ranked chess player as a kid and young adult (he was the subject of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), then he moved on to the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands martial art and became a national champion in that arena.

His revelation about his amazing success has been this — it’s not that he has innate talent either as a chess player or as a Tai Chi fighter, rather that he is exceptionally good at learning. And his approach to learning has enabled him to master not one but two highly demanding and competitive arenas. He’s even beaten Tai Chi opponents 50 pounds heavier than him — with his right hand broken.

Reading his book and learning about his approach – start slowly, master good form, then practice, practice, practice and use your losses as lessons – I can see a lot of similarities between his mastery of chess and Tai Chi and my own recovery from multiple TBIs. While in some areas (being able to put things together and come up with creative solutions) I have tested above average, on the whole I’d have to say I’m a regular person with more than my fair share of limitations. And defeats. And disappointments.

The thing is — and I’m realizing this now — all those limitations have been opportunities to learn and grow, and even if they don’t go away (I’ve had recurring headaches like I used to, for the past couple of weeks, some of them sickening and seriously numbing), the other areas I develop to compensate actually serve to put me out in front of where I might be, if everything were going well for me 100% of the time.

See, here’s the thing – we all have our “uneven” attributes. We don’t all come into this world with all our faculties 100% intact and 100% engaged. Life takes a lot of out of us, and we develop patterns and approaches that specialize in us developing certain aspects of ourselves and ignoring others, sometimes to the detriment of our overall happiness and ability to function and enjoy life. In many ways, a lot of us actually cripple ourselves in some ways, in the interest of strengthening ourselves in others. We use one side of our bodies predominantly, and the other side becomes weaker. We focus on work, to the detriment of our families. Or we focus on enjoying our lives to the detriment of our work. Workaholic or ski bum… rightie or leftie… and we end up with these uneven, asymmetrical lives that have considerable rewards on one hand, but on the other are dessicated and hollow.

And sometimes the only thing that snaps us out of that one-sided focus is when our dominant or masterful side is injured or damaged.

Then we are presented with several choices:

  1. We can bemoan our fate and struggle and fight to keep things exactly as they were, by doing things exactly as we always have done… and possibly end up defeated and depleted and depressed.
  2. We can “accept our limitations” and get used to having less of a life than we’d hoped for.
  3. We can accept that life has thrown us a curve, and that things have turned out different… we’ve turned out different… and then we can set about finding the new ways and new strengths we can develop in order to get where we’re going.
  4. We can hire someone to do everything for us.
  5. We can pretend everything is fine, fudge our way through life, and battle the demons of “impostor syndrome” and a constant fear of being found out, while seeking out more and more ways to present the person we want to look like, while launching offensives against anyone who might expose us.
  6. We can give up completely on the hope that things might ever get better and careen through life as “adventure seekers” without a care or consideration for anything of substance, while secretly believing a daredevil life is the best we can ever hope for.
  7. We can tell ourselves that we’re so damaged that the best we can hope for is mediocrity. And that’s that.

Choices, choices. I’m sure there are more, but right now let’s work with the above collection.

I think personally I’ve progressed from 1 to 2 to 3 — and 3 is where I am now and it’s where I intend to stay. The way I got to 3, is by going from being an entity learner to an incremental learner. And entity learner is someone who gets things quickly, who masters certain tasks and concepts quickly, without much effort, while struggling with other things. They’re the kind of person who needs to “get it” all at once, not one step at a time. And if they have to work at it, piece by piece, they feel stupid and slow and don’t stick it out.

It’s all or nothing with an entity learner.

An incremental learner, on the other hand, takes things one step at a time. They start slow and then as they master one element after another, they grow and build mastery. They don’t see a challenge as a thing to overcome in one fell swoop, rather as an opportunity to learn. And they never stop learning.

I think of the difference between entity learners and incremental learners like the difference between people who “learn computers” and people who learn to type. People who “learn computers” are often easily intimidated when things don’t turn out right. They click a button, and something different happens than they expected. They click a link, and the web page does something they didn’t anticipate. They can get intimidated and give up easily. I have lots of friends who do this — they seem to have this idea in their minds that computers should “just work” and when they don’t “cooperate” they throw up their hands and dismiss the whole experience as defeating.

On the other hand, learning to type is an exercise in dull repetition of proper form. I learned to type in high school back in the dark ages, when we still had electric typewriters (remember the old IBM Selectrics with the type ball?) and it was probably the most boring-ass class I’d ever had. The most fun I had in it was sitting behind a guy who I partied with, who had about 1,000 well-thought-out reasons why Jimmy Paige was the best guitarist of all time. I heard about 578 of those reasons in that class, when I wasn’t hammering out a-s-d-f a-s-d-f a-s-d-f a-s-d-f a-s-d-f a-s-d-f a-s-d-f hour after ever-loving hour. But you know what? That dull repetition paid off, and when it came time to learn to use computers and code and what-not, the speed and technique with which I’d learned to type made all the difference in my basic ability to function. And that’s translated to steady work over the years.

Clearly, that incremental learning has paid off big-time.

Those same lessons of incremental learning now apply to my TBI recovery. When your brain is injured, you literally need to become an incremental learner all over again. You can’t get stuck in the old beliefs about being able to do a lot of the things you used to do, easily, simply, without effort. TBI recovery is very much an incremental learning process, with each person needing to attend to different aspects of their own functionality to:

  1. Identify issues and weaknesses in everyday things that don’t work anymore
  2. Identify better/different ways of approaching those everyday things
  3. Find the “movements” or approaches that work (in slow motion)
  4. Practice those movements to train the brain and the body to perform these new movements with increasing ability
  5. Continuously reflect and examine the way things are going, to make corrections and fine new ways, if the ones you’re working with aren’t very productive

I truly believe that not being able to switch modes to incremental learner is what trips up so many TBI survivors. After all, there are many things we don’t even realize are messed up. So having decent feedback helps. It’s critical, in fact. I was fortunate enough to have checked my bank statements (for their own sort of feedback) at a time when my cognitive/behavioral issues (e.g., impulsiveness and cluelessness) were causing me to hemorrhage money. Those bank statements were clear feedback that something was amiss — Where’s all my money?

Likewise, working with my NP has been a regular source of feedback. My spouse has unfortunately not been very helpful, because they have set expectations of me (once high, now low) and when I do something unexpected, their feedback tends to be “entity-based” — either I nailed it, or I’m a loser. They have their own issues, and I can see that entity learner approach really holding them back in so many ways. But if someone isn’t 100% convinced that they have a right to 100% excellence, it’s tough to have constructive conversations about growth with them.

Well, never mind that. The point I’m trying to make is that when you’re an adult and you’ve got the hang of living life a certain way, then TBI comes along and mucks it all up, it can be easy to fall into entity learner paralysis. That’s what happened with me, and I also developed a healthy dose of learned helplessness. Because apparently I couldn’t do anything right, anymore.

But if you approach things as an incremental learner, which I have been working at, thanks to my NP and Give Back and all the TBI and human performance bloggers I follow, it totally turns things around, and rather than slips being catastrophes, they become lessons… investments in the future, provided I take the time to learn about them.

I’m still working on being open to those lessons. I’m still working on not getting too rigid with my expectations and outcomes. It’s a process which is not made easier by TBI or fatigue or any of the other sensory issues I encounter on a daily basis. But with incremental learning, that’s perfectly fine. Because with difficulty comes growth, and with practice comes mastery of one kind or another.

The main thing is to keep going, keep learning, and use each and every situation as fuel for the fire that burns with you and keeps you moving forward… backwards… side to side… and then forward again.


Author: brokenbrilliant

I am a long-term multiple (mild) Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI or TBI) survivor who experienced assaults, falls, car accidents, sports-related injuries in the 1960s, '70s, '80s, and '90s. My last mild TBI was in 2004, but it was definitely the worst of the lot. I never received medical treatment for my injuries, some of which were sports injuries (and you have to get back in the game!), but I have been living very successfully with cognitive/behavioral (social, emotional, functional) symptoms and complications since I was a young kid. I’ve done it so well, in fact, that virtually nobody knows that I sustained those injuries… and the folks who do know, haven’t fully realized just how it’s impacted my life. It has impacted my life, however. In serious and debilitating ways. I’m coming out from behind the shields I’ve put up, in hopes of successfully addressing my own (invisible) challenges and helping others to see that sustaining a TBI is not the end of the world, and they can, in fact, live happy, fulfilled, productive lives in spite of it all.

2 thoughts on “From entity learner to incremental learner”

  1. A really great post on how to learn. I think it’s really crucial to first learn how to learn, before one can genuinely learn. ‘Start slowly, master good form, then practice, practice, practice and use your losses as lessons.’ I will definitely try this and hopefully accumulate 10,000 hours of practice.


  2. Thanks – this is something I have been learning, bit by bit, over the past several years of working with my NP. I need to learn in this fashion in all areas of my life, not only my professional life, which has been marked by incremental learning. It’s tough to get past the all-or-nothing type of activity that I’ve typically followed. A part of me loves to “get it” right away, but then I miss the chance to learn more and do more and become more.

    I hope to turn this around… slowly but surely.

    Thanks for writing.


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