When Learning Gets Overwhelming

I’ll be the first one to admit that I get a bit over-zealous about the virtues of ‘Ike loa (the Hawaiian value of learning), believing that learning is all peaches and cream. This isn’t the first time I’ve been wrong, and it won’t be the last.

Our conversation started with wanting Focus

A manager said to me in his coaching call (shared with his gracious permission):

“It’s so hard for me to focus on learning the right things about my job. I know my boss wants me to learn more about this financial stuff, but I keep getting distracted by wanting to teach it, and not by wanting to learn more of it.”

Me: “I’m not sure I got that. Can you say it again?”

Manager: “My boss and I agree on the value of learning. I don’t think we agree on what I should be learning right now, or if I should be learning more about this at all. Our priorities are different. She wants me to learn more about our financial picture than I know now, but I’m still working on what I already know, and I want to teach it to the rest of my staff before I jump into new learning.”

Me: “Have you explained that to your boss yet?”

Manager: “Yeah. Um, well, I think so. Maybe not exactly in that way. I don’t think she’ll want to hear it.”

Me: “We can’t know that. We might need to give her the benefit of the doubt on what she wants, or doesn’t want to hear. We’ll get back to that” Tell me more about what you want to teach your staff first.”

It was an interesting conversation. We continued to talk a bit about needing to bring his boss back into the conversation to better understand this subject of learning relevance, and to be sure they each understood each other clearly. We also started to talk about how learning and teaching differ, and how learning can be pretty stressful for him. When you learn more, that comfortable place where “ignorance is still bliss” slips away. Suddenly, you have to handle what you have newly learned about!

However here is the tough thing about saying “No, not now” to new learning: You don’t know what you don’t know yet. It didn’t dawn on him that his boss may want him to learn more to help him and not overwhelm him. There was the very real possibility that he was refusing to learn something which would lessen his stress and not add to it.

That said, it became increasingly clear to me, that he may really need to say, “No, not now” and have his boss be okay with that. Turns out he was “getting distracted” by one of his strengths!

Are we talking about the same thing?

It got a little more complicated” and interesting! This might turn out to be more than one conversation he will have with his boss, and should.

For this manager, learning more than he was ready to deal with wasn’t just overwhelming him, he thought it was pure mission creep, and not at all conducive to him helping his team better their performance. Before we spoke, he had decided he needed to talk to his boss about that instead: That mission creep was the real issue he grappled with in his day-to-day juggling act, and that “more learning on mission creep” wasn’t going to help anyone. Not her, not him, not his team.

I agreed that he needed to speak with her again for true clarity, and to unload some of his stress about it, for he feared (but he wasn’t quite sure) that she would still expect him to handle his existing learning and new learning simultaneously, and sort them out afterwards.

My response was, “Well, if she does feel that way, you’ll discover that you don’t agree on what mission creep is.”

We had to separate the two issues, and not call overwhelming learning ‘mission creep’ or “different priorities” when it was simply learning that he couldn’t handle yet. However for him, fessing up to not being able to handle it was a little risky: His boss preached about the merit of continual learning all the time. (Sound familiar?) As he blurted out in his coaching call,

“Aw come on Rosa, who in their right mind is gonna tell their boss they just can’t handle learning?”

There are times we ALL can’t handle learning

To be okay with that, you need to define when you love it (or when it helps you feel strong) and when you hate it. Put a name and a description on your distaste for learning when it begins to happen, so you can correctly identify your resistance.

Then once you define it, sharing that knowledge of self-awareness with your own boss is a really great idea! For that’s what it actually is: Resistance you can identify and work with as your own self-awareness of when work (or learning) is working for you, and when it’s  not. It’s not a refusal (a won’t disguised as a can’t —and yeah, bosses hate those. Don’t we all?)

‘Learning’ is as cool and sexy a buzz word as ‘leadership’ is, yet similar to leadership, learning fits in a very BIG bucket: A lot of different learning efforts can be in that bucket, coming in a multitude of colors and stripes —some of it highly relevant and mission-critical, some of it distracting, and possibly mission-creep.

In this particular case, I think there is a fascinating, and mutually beneficial conversation which needs to happen between my manager client and his boss, where he explains to her how teaching his staff

We named his resistance this way: For him, learning is an input which simply needs teaching someone else as his learning output, and when you’re a manager, that is actually a great thing. Not all managers love to teach, and not as much as he does! I bet his boss would love to know more about his love of teaching if she isn’t fully aware of it, especially given the way his teaching aligns with workplace need: It is highly relevant.

He happens to be a teacher who needs a workplace to receive his teaching, not a classroom.

Let’s talk story

Interesting discussion, don’t you think?

When else can learning be overwhelming?

Can you separate whatever is within your learning bucket, so it is more manageable for you?

How would you name your own learning resistance when it appears?

Photo Credits: 236/365 doing the sums by obo-bobolina
and The Joys of Homework by Cayusa, both found on FlickrCC.


  1. says

    Rosa, I think this is spot on and I love the way you talk through and name the resistance at the end.

    I have a near insatiable appetite for learning but sometimes do feel I cannot absorb anything else that is *new*. I find myself then saying no, no, I can’t learn any more, I’m exhausted by it, but what (I think) I really mean is that I need to switch my learning to learning how to apply, and in particular, how to teach.

    I think that is still learning…

    Perhaps we could learn healthier definitions of learning – it doesn’t have to be new. It can be simpler, better, passing on.

    I also recall (from JJL) it can be unlearning (remember that?)

    And there’s something David Zinger wrote about learning without adding that’s tickling the back of my mind… if I think of it I’ll pop back. Or maybe you’ll get there first :-)

    • Rosa Say says

      Thank you Joanna, it is good to hear from you on this as well! This resonates for me too:

      I have a near insatiable appetite for learning but sometimes do feel I cannot absorb anything else that is *new*.

      and I do think it is fairly easy for me to separate what is “totally new” and therefore not relevant to anything I don’t presently have going on, and can improve in that “continual learning” pile. Where we have to take pause, is in all the grey areas – and as you know, there can be a lot of those, needing either our resistance naming or that “healthier definition” you mentioned.

      And yes, I remember our “unlearning” theme very well! David on the other hand, has left sooo many gems in his comments there that I am not sure how to search for the one you’re thinking about – I welcome your help on that if more time permits for you!

  2. says

    I think that too often “lifelong learning” is discussed as a quality in itself, but not as a means to cope better with the challenges of daily life and work. Learning something is important only if it helps me to solve problems or reach my goals. I am into facebook now, learning a lot, but I am learning because I think it is important for me to reach out to new communities in order to get known as a person who knows something about art and music (gosh – what a sentence, I must have gone crazy) and wants to show it in her squidoo lenses. I am learning photoshop things because I can use them at work and for my “private projects”.
    Just my 2cents
    .-= Ulla ´s last blog ..Stephen King, “It” =-.

    • Rosa Say says

      I’m pretty sure I get what you mean Ulla, and it’s the reason I prefer to thinking of learning as a value we all have at different times in varying degrees of relevance, and not as a “quality.” You’re spot on with it being “a means to cope better” with our challenges, and when my manager/client reads this, I know your choice of words in making that distinction will help him too – thank you!

      I also love what you have shared about your current learning reasoning with Facebook. You reveal for us how learning can give us more courage, causing us to surprise ourselves with our own bravado (serendipitously what I have posted about on Say “Alaka‘i today! Koa, the Hawaiian Value of Courage). However Ulla, I must also tell you that those of us who know you are not at all surprised by this (you have NOT gone crazy :-) for we know you as a person who knows a lot about art and music!

  3. says

    I think too, that the pace of learning varies from one person to the next. For instance, when I am given something new, I often need some time to absorb it and decide where I am going to “put” it before I move on to the next thing. I guess it’s about giving it some context. Being a reflector, I need time to process new information, to look at it from a variety of angles and to build on it in my mind. Perhaps that makes me slow on the uptake :-)

    By way of contrast, I used to work with a woman who was especially quick at, well, just about everything. She walked fast, she talked fast and she absorbed new information at the speed of light…a very bright woman. During the times that she shared new information with me, I would listen, sometimes take notes, repeat what I thought I heard her to say to make sure I was understanding her meaning and then I would say something like, “Okay, now I’m full”. When I said that, she would back away and give me a little time to assimilate all that I had heard, to ask questions and to explore. And then, having done that, I would go back for more.

    While our learning styles differed, we each had respect for the way the other responded to new things and we each took responsibility for how we needed to receive them.

    Another thought-provoking post Rosa. Thank you.

    • Rosa Say says

      Rich comment Gwyn, thank you!

      With my own learning I’ve always been aware of my need for “study time” that is connected to learning something new, but somewhat separate from it, and it’s about that process of “giving it some context” you mention. I think it can be very helpful to consider the two processes that way.

      And I love the story you shared! It translates to fabulous coaching for teams, or for other working partnerships: Such a gift to know, and respect each other’s learning styles (and “taking it in” needs) the way the you two had done, and this is so wise:

      “…and we each took responsibility for how we needed to receive them.”