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The mental disorder that sabotages absolutely everyone’s learning

I’m the last person who’ll argue with the notion that you’re a unique and beautiful snowflake. Just a few month’s as a therapist taught me that no two people (and their problems) are ever identical.

You may be the same decaying organic matter as everyone else, but your thinking makes you different. Except when it doesn’t. Sometimes, despite our differences, we all think the same.

Case in point: We humans have a psychological program running in our minds that destroys our ability to learn. We all have it – no one is immune. There is no cure.

Because of this mental program, we’re letting some of the best insights and realizations pass right over our head. Our development, as entrepreneurs and as people is retarded.

Learning about it and being more aware of it is our only hope. Today we’re going to dig deep into some juicy psychology to figure out what’s blocking our ability to learn.

The Law of Closure

This Gestalt Psychology principle holds that we have an innate tendency to perceive incomplete objects as complete. To close or fill gaps and to perceive asymmetric stimuli as symmetric.

That’s the stuffy, textbook definition of the phenomena that screws up our learning. What does it really mean?

As humans, we tend to work hard to “get” stuff. In fact, in modern english the phrase “I get it” has become an everyday occurrence.

“I get it”. Which is to say…. The learning is mine. I own this. I’ve grasped it.

I get it – I’ve got closure.

Whenever we’re exposed to a learning opportunity, we begin trying to furiously “get” everything in sight.

Think of the last time you asked someone for advice. Or read a book. Or a blog post.

In fact, think of any time you were exposed to new information!

When the human brain begins to absorb new information, it rushes to fill in the blanks. It “perceives incomplete objects as complete”. We have a deeply ingrained need for closure.

For some mysterious reason, we all like to digest new information in perfect bite sized chunks. Have you already spotted the danger of this tendency?

Hypothetical example:

You’re an entrepreneur. You meet a world famous business tycoon in the street, randomly. You ask her for advice. You’re smart enough to ask a clever question – not just some lame “how can I get rich?” cliche.

When the guru delivers their advice in a quick-fire soundbite, what’s your response going to be?

I get it.

But do you? You understood the words they said, for sure. You might have even understood the principle they were explaining… but do you really “get” it?

I’d define “totally getting it” as having a level of practical understanding that’d allow you to action your new learnings to create similarly amazing results. In other words, if you really GET the tycoon’s advice – you’re getting tycoon sized results.

But you’re not… at least, not yet. So you don’t really get it.

“Get it” shuts down learning

Even the words imply the end of a process. You get it – it’s been got. There is no more getting to do.

When you get it, the learning is finished. You’re basically telling us (and yourself) that you know everything there is to know about the topic and that you don’t need to hear anymore.

Getting it sends a clear signal to your unconscious mind. The message reads “learning time is over!”

Have you ever sat in a Q&A panel session, listened to another person ask a question and instantly thought “Oh, I already get this”? How carefully did you listen to the response provided?

How about while reading a business book. How many chapter-endings have you skimmed because you already “got it”?


“Getting it” is an absolute illusion. It’s a lie we tell ourselves to make it okay to terminate our curiosity.

The real masters of any discipline, be it business, martial arts or ice-sculpting all tend to agree on one thing: They never stop learning.

There is always more to know. New discoveries are around every corner. The moment you stop learning (and growing) you start dying.

In business, this is the harsh truth. The moment you get complacent some nimble young competitor sneaks up and blows you out of the market.

There is no “I get it”. You haven’t got it and you can’t even being to imagine how much more there is yet to get.

I might sound arrogant telling you this but don’t worry, I don’t get it either.

It’s fair to say that the moment an entrepreneur believes they “get it”, they’re at risk of some other (nimble and smart) whizkid making them eat dust.

“I know all about that”

“I know what kind of person he is”

“There’s only one way this works”

“I get it!”

Can we, as entrepreneurs, afford to keep up the habit of premature closure?

When we hunt to find the pattern, symmetry or closure in the limited information we have, we rob ourselves of the bigger pattern. We miss out on the sublime learning that can be discovered at even greater levels of closure.

The law of closure is something we never escape. However, the more aware of it we are the more we can try to escape it.

By striving to reject closure, we cultivate the curiosity and creativity that opens our mind to unlimited possibilities. Make a habit of doing this and you’ll quickly gain a reputation as one of those incredible people who simply sees things others don’t.

Think about the super-star entrepreneurs you know. Are they the people who spot the opportunities that everyone else misses? Do they create unconventional connections that change everything?

My favorite example? The law of closure prevented every shoe retailer on the planet from achieving mass online success. It wasn’t possible – everyone knew this. They got it. Except Tony Hsieh. He didn’t get it and stayed curious enough that he “got” something else entirely.

“Getting it” creates your own mini, psychological status-quo. When you get it, you’re subscribing to a delusion that you know it all. That belief, as my mum would say, is bound to end in tears.

And: It’s all fun and games until someone loses a business.

Seeking closure and completeness of understanding is part of what makes us human. It’s how we make sense of our crazy world.

We’ll never transcend it completely. Weirdly enough though, it’s trying to do exactly that (even though it’s impossible) that creates success and happiness in life. Guaranteed.

The act of striving makes the difference. It’s the most significant journey you can embark on as an entrepreneur. Best part? You’ll never arrive at the destination.

Do you get it? Let me know in the comments…


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  1. Hey Peter,

    A true gem of a post. I see so many folks shutting down to learning anything new, even in their own area of specialty. Recently, I taught a blogging class on how to write compelling posts. Then I saw an in-person class on blogging, so I went to it. I did indeed learn something new, well worth my time to attend. I’m also a published essayist, yet I still take essay writing classes because I always learn something new, something that enhances my own writing or even my own teaching.

    Taking a vow to be open to learning, about our clients and prospects, our world and ourselves, makes for an enchanting life.

    Here’s to learning! Many thx, hope the Boston group grows enough to warrant a meet-up when you visit. Thx, G.

  2. Peter,
    Thanks for shining a light on this default behaviour that is often unhelpful.
    Ambiguity, as David Rock likes to point out, generates a threat response so it’s not unusual that we tend to avoid it. That we’re trained throughout formal education to seek a correct answer, get the gold star and move on simply reinforces the practice.
    In corporate contexts closure is too often associated with decisiveness – the absence of which is deemed a weakness.
    I think staying in the question or striving, as you suggest, is a valuable thinking skill that each of us needs to develop and advocate.

    1. Hey Andrew! You’ve said it well – this is definitely a skill we need to both develop AND advocate. Helping others become more aware of this can be useful to help ourselves gain awareness too.

  3. This is one hell of a post. While reading this one I felt like you were channeling Tennyson- to strive, to find, to seek, and not to yield.

    While “getting it” in the sense that “yep,I am totally a guru in the topic” is fatal to growth, “getting it” in the sense that “hmm, I think I understand what you are saying, but can we now do this?” is what is vital for personal and professional growth. Agree? Disagree?

  4. I read this, grinned… and spent the rest of the day being surprised each time I caught myself saying, “I get it.” It was a LOT. Most were a habitual response, a catchphrase I use all the time, but it was funny to notice how much the phrase was a part of my language.

    By the way, I do exactly what you wrote – skip sections in books (“I know this already”), skim blog posts (“Bah, that’s basic stuff”) and don’t always listen closely. I guess it’s pretty easy to think we know it all when we already know a lot, but someone might know a tiny critical difference that might change our world…

  5. Thank you Peter, another great post as I am quickly learning you always write.

    Thank you also for replying to my submission for your advice. So what I get out of this post is never close off always be open to what is happening, learn, apply, keep doing, taking action in a constant eb flow of enjoying and experiencing the journey. Which I calling LIVING!

    Thank you

    Trevor Russell

  6. I’ve never thought about it like that before – I get it = finish.

    It’s sad then, that school revolves around “getting” stuff. Learn (a completely superficial amount) about a subject, get it, regurgitate it in an exam, get the marks, move on.

    I think you’ve just prompted another blog post!

    Cheers Pete

  7. Reminds me why I read novels so much.

    As a writer it’s easy to skim over ‘how to’ books on writing, but very hard to skim over a fiction story without missing something. It’s easier to absorb different stylistic approaches far more from fiction because of paying more attention to real world examples, without being in danger of ‘getting it’ and losing attention.

  8. OOOHHH I do so look forward to your posts! You always manage to winkle out a happiness-threatening pathology and kiss it better. In my book The Principles of Lightness, I offer the idea that we actually can’t ‘get’ or ‘own’ anything at all in the whole cosmos, except the perception that we have in every instant. All possessions (getting-shuns) are simply opportunities to experiment the experience of that possession, be it a house, a car, a pair of shoes, or a piece of information. Here’s an idea to throw around (until we get it)…maybe this tendency to so need closure is simply a profound dis-ease with the undeniable transient nature of life. Change freaks most people out’s destabilizing, more than we can cope with. Hence our clinging to anything: people, places, ideas, even principles (which I’ve just corrected 3 times). Maybe we need to keep on ‘getting it until we’ve got it’ because living in constant flux is too damn scary. Man so loves to constantly measure things with his beta brain, so that alpha, theta and any other ‘fluxy’ bits of us stay firmly under control. Which is what many of us are addicted to. I think I’d better stop here..cause I’m about to rant happily!!!

  9. Interesting posting Peter, thank you. I was just having a conversation with a young guy who approached me while I painted live at an event and mentioned his desire to do art; but lack of initiative and follow through with regards to making it more than just a concept–if he really wanted to do it. I told him that I believed that ultimately “WE” are the ones who will set our own boundaries, and many times we don’t know something, until we find out.

    My personal response to the “Guru” would simply be THANK YOU. In this day and age, I try not to think that I “get” ANYTHING–to it’s complete, and full extent. I’ve proven myself wrong many times in the past by having that attitude, and have limited the speed in which I can actually get the WHOLE message that is being delivered, and sometimes the underlying messages attached, or implied as well. Associations, preconceived notions and paradigms… I think Einstein put it well when he said: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education” ( I may be paraphrasing, but the point is there)

  10. Triple hmmm…

    Peter, your points are very interesting. And I was asking myself what would the expression “I get it” be in my ‘main’ native language: Algerian dialectic arabic. And also in French. It’s fun : )

    In Algerian: “I get it” = “Rani kacheh.” literrally: Rani: I am, and kacheh: understanding- in a smart, popular social feel.
    In it’s past tense ‘kchah’t is used also to say that you were able to ‘see’ something that went so fast before your eyes, that other people didn’t ‘GET’ the chance of seeing it, and hold it in their memory. So they didn’t GET IT 🙂 (it leads to ‘I see,’ but more of ‘in a blink of an eye.’)
    “Got it” = “Kchah’t,” seems like kchah’ed, and inspires catch’ed, and even cashed: in french it is said ‘c’est dans la poche’ which means it’s in the pocket, to say that it’s understood. Just like money? Or maybe keys? A tool? Sure thing is it’s a valuable ‘object,’ and deserves being totally owned, protecting it somewhere personal.
    And then it remembers me of a weird habit some people have: they gather books they love, not to understand them or read them, but to own them… that would be a perfect example of ‘closure,’ where a book stays closed most of the time. Feelings must play a big role in that.

    This leads to think about to be ‘Gadheb’; which literally in Algerian arabic means holding/catching something in your hands (like a book?)
    Rani Gadheb (I am catching) is used much more than Rani kacheh’ (I am smartly seeing the relationship) because “Gadheb” (catching) is used for a double meaning: understanding AND holding in memory, for larger chunks of meanings and memories. Students use this term a lot.
    So in a funny situation, when in front of something totally hard to understand, I would turn to a fellow potential non-understander and ask him: “eh… did you “catch” anything?”
    Or just before an exam, a mate would ask me if I am holding some good memory chunks about some subject lessons, in hope that I’ll be of help: “are you Gadheb (catching) a little?” and I would answer: “I am catching nothing in her!” (I’ve already thought about the meaning of ‘in her’ before: it’s a feminine popular term, and it’s often used for “the situation.” Does it relate to not understanding women for men? 🙂

    Another french verb for ‘to understand’ is: ‘saisir’ which literally means ‘to grab’, and is used too in a quolloquial spoken language. Saisir means also ‘to catch’ bribes of a conversation, which envolves hearing rather than seeing.

    If we explore more popular spoken verbs (colloquialisms) or expressions in different languages, translations of other meanings of “I get it,” we may end up seeing that the process of social level understanding for our brain (or any possible entity) is mainly programmed by our natural senses; touching, mooving, seeing, hearing, or feeling (I don’t have a spoken term for feeling, but one friend told me once about a french term in philosophy, the ‘sentiment,’ which is meant to be a powerful and deep ‘knowledge’ that surpasses ‘understanding,’ I would think of it as intuition but I’ve been told that it’s even more powerful than that, a subject to dive into…)

    Now I’m not a

  11. Oops, sorry it seems my message was cut by bad Internet connection.

    I wanted to finish with how babies learn: they grab something and ‘shmup,’ they taste it, lol. Then when they grow up they limit themselves with just cofee, or tea for me 🙂

    How about you? Cofee? Tea? 🙂

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