Last week I wrote about the benefits of learning a radically new skill. It sounds great, so why do so few people actually do this? There are some very real obstacles that keep us from making the leap. The good news is that you can overcome them with a few tweaks to your mindset.


Does the idea of learning something new sound like a lot of effort? Not sure what you would even want to try? If these questions cross your mind, you may be unwittingly closing yourself off to the possibilities that surround you.

Routine has a way of putting blinders on our lives, keeping us moving straight forward, unable to see anything outside our narrow view. But as soon as you realize the blinders exist, you can take them off simply by asking questions. What do your family, friends, and co-workers do with their time that is different from what you do? What do you see on the street and in the media that piques your interest? What makes you think, even for a moment, “Wow, that is so cool!”? Start tuning in to this inner voice and let it grow.

Another way we create false limitations is with labels: we think of ourselves in terms of what we can already do, not in terms of future potential. So even when we experience something awesome, we don’t associate ourselves with it – our lives go on unchanged. It’s easy to drown out that spark of interest with the classic, “That’s so cool, but I have no [artistic, athletic, technological, etc.] abilities.”

How many times did I marvel over the beauty and excitement of dance before it occurred to me to actually try it? I was too wrapped up in my own world to consider that possibility, and besides, I wasn’t the dancing type. It took the personal encouragement of a new friend who danced in order to get over these ideas and go take a class. Letting go of our self-imposed limitations takes some mental effort, but the reward is a world of possibility.

Fear of failure

Does the thought of being a beginner again make you cringe? Are you envisioning the frustration of not getting it right, time and time again? Perhaps you’re recalling painful experiences of being judged – or judging yourself – for not being “good enough.” This is a mental barrier that has dogged me for my whole life, but I’ve learned to overcome it with a couple simple ideas.

Most people harbor some degree of fear of failure, and many are stuck in a fixed mindset. For them, a mistake is a personal flaw because they believe that intelligence / talent is a fixed trait. Failure hurts so bad because it doesn’t just mean that what you did failed, but also that you as a person failed. This kind of thinking can hold you back from taking on challenges that will benefit you in the long run.

This exactly describes me as a kid, and I still fall into this detrimental mindset occasionally – just this week I lost my inner cool while playing frisbee. I started off with a few bad throws, and my negative self-talk kicked in right away. I almost threw in the towel, but instead I paused, took a deep breath, and committed to doing the two things that help me embrace the learning process.

First, I made learning, rather than performing well, my goal. The power of this is twofold: It transforms struggle from a frustrating barrier into an exciting precursor to learning, and it focuses my attention on seeking creative solutions. So I looked at my hand position, played with my stance, and asked my husband to show me his throwing motion. Pretty soon I discovered the key to my problems in the way my fingers were gripping the frisbee, and suddenly my throws improved significantly.

Second, I started to reward myself for doing it well and for persevering. Research has shown that everyone, from baby animals to adult humans, learns better through positive reinforcement (I particularly like Karen Pryor’s book on this subject). So I began cheering the good throws and laughing at my husband running through the snow for the bad ones. I ended the session with a better throw and a much more cheerful attitude than when I started.

For people who grew up a fixed mindset, changing it will take time and dedication. It’s all too easy to fall back into this pattern of thinking and simply avoid situations that push your boundaries. If you keep at it, though, you will create a much more positive and productive mental environment and open yourself to personal growth.

Lack of resources

Are you psyched to try something new but can’t find a way to make it happen? Maybe you lack the time money, space, or instruction. These are real challenges, but don’t let them stop you from getting started. It’s far better to do something, even if it’s not exactly what you imagined, than nothing at all.

Think about this true story that author Colin Beavan tells in his book, How To Be Alive. A man wants to learn guitar, but he is discouraged by how long it would take to get good enough to play with other people. He has a demanding job that doesn’t afford him much time to practice. By chance, a friend introduces him to the ukulele, and he finds that it’s a much easier instrument to learn. Within a short period he finds himself enjoying jam sessions with friends – exactly what he was longing to experience. By doing something slightly different that was feasible in the context of his life, he was able to quickly achieve what he was truly seeking.

So if what you want seems out of reach, ask yourself this: what is one small thing you can do now to move in the direction of what you really want? If you want to take lessons but can’t afford them, start learning from Youtube videos and online communities. If you can’t fit a new thing into your schedule, try carving out just a few minutes a day or one hour a week. If there’s nowhere to do the specific thing you’re dreaming of, look for something similar but more accessible.

As you progress, you may find that this new thing becomes so fulfilling and important that it’s worth making some lifestyle changes that would allow you to pursue it more fully. For now, the important thing is to take the first step, even if it’s a baby one.

What’s your biggest obstacle?

What stops you from trying something new, and what’s one thing you want to try to overcome it? What has helped you in the past? Share in the comments below!