How to Learn Like a Baby

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It might be the most common piece of advice in the history of the world. You hear it whenever you’re learning something new. Just three words:

Take baby steps.

The most common interpretation of this is: Go small. Be safe. Don’t take big risks. 

There’s just one problem with this interpretation: it’s wrong.

Because we are not built to learn by avoiding risk, but by embracing it.

Fortunately, babies (like the one above) give us a useful blueprint for doing this:

  • Don’t tiptoe meekly —  move with enthusiasm toward a target beyond your reach.
  • Be a little crazy.
  • Be ready for spectacular wipeouts (why it’s a good idea to have people around to support you.)
  • Accept fear. If it’s not scary, you’re not doing it right.

Slightly crazed bravery is what baby steps are really all about. That’s why they work, both for babies and for the rest of us.


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6 Responses to “How to Learn Like a Baby”

  1. Jared says:

    Daniel,

    At what point did we get things so backwards? I have seen hundreds of babies learning to walk by taking baby steps. Everything you point out is true. So why, until this point, have I always considered baby steps completely opposite of what they actually are? And a follow up question to myself, how many other misconceptions do I have about the laws of learning.

    Thanks again for your insight.

  2. djcoyle says:

    Good question, Jared. Amazing how we can go from risk-taking little kids to risk-averse grownups. Can we blame our genes for this? ;-)

  3. Lynn McCall says:

    The mom and dad set up a wonderful environment- full of joy and support. The environment nutures growth!

  4. Hap says:

    While this portrays a wonderful moment for the baby, it concerns me that Dad’s vocal participation may turn it from a learning experience into one more example of our culture’s current trend toward performance. Is this kind of encouragement a good idea? How much of the kid’s delight is in a novel accomplishment, and how much is in pleasing Dad?

    A classmate who is a family therapist shared his concern with me about our culture of performance and image building, as opposed to being more inner-directed. Which is why so much video taken of kids seems to me a kind of exploitation of their natural desire to please, but may lose the kid’s ‘self’ when pleasing an ‘other’ becomes a priority.

    Talents are wonderful. But how resilient is an identity based solely on what one happens to be good at, especially when it requires constant reinforcement from the outside?

  5. doc says:

    Jared asks an excellent question. I had a good conversation with my barber whose son is the local high school football coach. They lost a game last year in the final minute because they went into a pass prevent and never got out of it and the opposing team nickel and dimed their way down and scored on the last play. So why do adults play it safe when the participants want to compete? You see this also in Baseball and Softball when a good hitter is intentionally walked when the situation doesn’t dictate it or when a BB team fouls at the end of the game with a three point lead so the opposing team can’t get off a 3 pointer. Truth be told, most athletes would like to be challenged to the final play and want to compete in all situations. Adults want to play it safe and hopfully slaughter everyone. I know this is a gross over exageration but seems to be generally true. In short Jared, it beats the hell out of me. Hope someone out there has an answer.

  6. Will Dooley says:

    Today’s news back’s up doc’s post:

    “Madrid led through Sergio Ramos’ 35th-minute free kick, but the visitors sat back too deep in the closing stages.

    “With Ronaldo on the sidelines encouraging his teammates, Madrid ultimately buckled after an 85th-minute corner kick.”

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