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3 mental barriers to learning

There are dozens of ways “I already know” manifests. For example, “I already know what he will say, and “I’ve already tried that a dozen times.”

5 min read




Whether you are an executive, a tradesman or a highly accomplished professional, the biggest barrier to learning is not your lack of time or resources. Your biggest barrier to learning is your own ego. We live in a sea of opportunity for learning through other people, yet we fail to see the opportunity due to three mental barriers:

  1. The belief that you already know
  2. The assumption that you are the smartest
  3. The need to be right

“I already know”

If you already know it all there’s no reason to listen any further. There’s no reason to be curious, and there’s no reason to ask a question. End of story. You already know. The belief that you already know limits your perspective because after all, you don’t want to waste your time on something you already know.

There are dozens of ways “I already know” manifests. For example, “I already know what he will say, and “I’ve already tried that a dozen times.”

How to fix: First, stop saying “I already know that,” Or “I already know what he’ll say.” What to do instead? Say, “Tell me more, “or “Share your perspective.” Look for nuances and nuggets of information.

The benefits: Your brain will get exercise. Others will find you to be interesting instead of boring. You’ll add to the conversation and energy instead of subtracting from it. 

I already know that is a first cousin of “I am the smartest person in the room.”

“I’m the smartest person”

You might have “smartest person syndrome” when you compare yourself with someone else and find yourself to be the clear winner. You have a higher degree and you make more money. You didn’t make the same mistake they did. You got a promotion and they didn’t. They are divorced and you aren’t. You reinvented yourself but they are still stuck in the same old career.

The list could go on for decades. Trade the word “smartest” with “best” or “most successful” and you’ll soon realize being the smartest person is an exhausting game that limits your ability to connect to other people.

How to fix: Decide it’s OK to not be the smartest person in the room. That’s it. Just give up the need to be better than anyone else. Let’s face it, if you are really that good bragging doesn’t get you any higher.

The benefits: You will appreciate others. Your relationships will be bound by interests and equality rather than by comparison. Others will want to collaborate with you and share their smarts. You win. They win. We all win.

“I’m right”

If you are afraid of being wrong, you will stubbornly cling to outdated ideas just to win the argument. The ways we need to be right are too many to list and often too subtle to notice.

For example, while learning a new skill you realize the teacher isn’t really that good. You could do it better. Someone misspells a word and you can’t move past your desire to point out the mistake. Being right feels so good. It’s sort of like “smartest person syndrome,” except that “being right” is more about proving a point than it is about comparing.

How to fix: Give up the need to win every argument or prove every point. Ask yourself the question, “Does this improve my situation or theirs?” If not, let it go. Notice how difficult it is not to get the approval or recognition of being right. But in the end, if it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter.

The benefits: You get to laugh more and save time. No more nit-picking. People will enjoy your company a lot more. You’ll get more invitations to parties. Surprisingly, you may even get more opportunities to prove how right you are because more people will seek your opinion now that you don’t have such a codependent need to prove your worth by being right.

Conclusion: As a leader, if you want to build a learning environment, you must realize that the very nature of learning means not knowing the answer, realizing others know more and the willingness to be wrong occasionally. Giving up these three barriers — knowing it all, needing to be the smartest person in the room and proving how right you are — lightens your load and significantly increases your speed.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of “Stop Workplace Drama” (Wiley 2011) and “No-Drama Leadership” (Bibliomotion 2015). Visit her at and, and connect via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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