It’s really easy to learn something is impossible. We try once, twice and can’t get it done. We try third and fourth time to learn it can’t be done. “Because it was always like this”. There’s something or someone blocking the changes we envision. Quietly, we give up. Bit by bit, we learn that the world doesn’t want to yield to our will. We stop trying. Status quo wins.
This is called learned helplessness. It’s widely spread in big organisations. It’s pernicious. Perhaps you heard this term but didn’t think about it much. But you’re a victim of it one way or the other. Whether you realise it or not. It may be at work, it may be your mates or your neighbours. It can hide in the corners of your subconsciousness. You knew “it” is impossible for so long, you stopped seeing it.
Realising we’re helpless
Learned helplessness is the unknown unknown, so can’t ask about what we don’t know. So how to detect it?
One way is to temporarily change our environment. Vacation may help with that. Or other ways of breaking routine. Changing the daily or weekly schedule. But going away is the best.
Another way is to take a look at our past goals and plans. When we compare where we wanted to be with where we landed we can see that at some point we gave up. From there we can trace back who or what “learned” us. This requires some introspection of course, but we have a start.
Talking to a good old friend can make us realise. Especially if it’s been a long while since we last spoke to each other. They remember our old aspirations and plans.
Yet another way is to talk to (new) people in our context: the same trade, industry or neighbourhood. Just make sure they’re outside of our circle of every day colleagues and friends. Instinctively we’ll compare our amount of freedom and influence to their situation. That’s when we can see if we’re blocked by invisible chains inside us.
How to make “it” possible again
Now that we know we’ve learned helplessness what to do about it? First allow some time after realisation. Let your mind, both conscious and subconscious to internalise, find connections and understand the situation. Build energy for action. Check if the blocker is still in place. Perhaps our circumstances have changed and we haven’t noticed that?
Make plans. Just don’t overthink and don’t procrastinate. Make a deadline. Use that time to talk to other people than usual. Get a broader perspective. Set goals.
Then it’s time to act. The most obvious action is to change the environment. Switch companies, ask for a transfer to a different division or move. Less obvious way to fight the learned helplessness is to simply start trying again. This sounds strange, doesn’t it? This requires persistence, energy and courage. You need to be internally convinced and motivated to do it. You need a goal or a clear vision of future. You need a plan and reminders on your way to the goal. You need to care and want to fight.
How about you? Have you experienced learned helplessness? What did you do about it?