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Why We Need to Be Open to Learning New Things

Why We Need to Be Open to Learning New Things
Photo by Charlota Blunarova on Unsplash

It’s tastefully hot outside—the kind of air you can sip out of a mason jar. In my left hand, thread between my pinky and my pointer finger, a set of thick leather reins. In my right hand, a wooden mallet. I’m riding a little bay horse named Bochita, named after “little ball” in Spanish. Her chest is the size of two bowling balls and her owner tells me, “She gains weight by basically swallowing air.” I feel instantly connected to her. We are standing in a field that spans the size of four football fields, two goal lines on each side. And I’m spending my Wednesday evening learning how to play polo.

A friend of mine convinced me to try it over the summer, at the Twin City Polo Club in Long Lake, Minnesota. The place is spectacular. Horses dapple the countryside and an open barn houses their flicking tails and leather saddles. Colorful wooden mallets hang from stall doors.

When we arrive to ride, I’m always nervous. Learning something new makes me feel robust and complicated, as if I have no room to house any more information. Green fields spread far and wide, topped by large orange goal posts on each side.

The first day of lessons, we walked on-ground, learning how to clock the ball with a short mallet. The second day, we rode our horses and learned the rules of the game. Which, let me tell you, are ten times more complicated on a 1,200 pound animal. I can’t count how many times I royally missed aiming for that waffle-sized ball, worrying I would hit Bochita in the mouth instead. And the rules! Amidst learning the precision and balance of riding, hitting the ball, steering, staying on, scoring a goal, hitting opponents, and whacking their mallet off the path, I was in for a serious learning curve.

Polo was a great, humbling reminder that I don’t know a lot about the things I really do know. Or, that there are so many things in this world I have to open myself up to; so many levels and steps I need to take to know myself in the process.

I’ve been riding horses for over twenty years. And polo was a great, humbling reminder that I don’t know a lot about the things I really do know. Or, that there are so many things in this world I have to open myself up to; so many levels and steps I need to take to know myself in the process.

The first few days of polo sent me on a vulnerable spiral that assured me I didn’t know much about riding with grit and stamina. I was constantly frustrated by my balance and ability to take care of the horse and my mind. I was, to put it simply, really bad at polo. Which, in turn, made me feel like a really bad rider. 

After much frustration, missing the ball, and breaking the rules of the game (hi, going the wrong way down the field—guilty!), polo helped, and it is helping me learn so much about myself. Bochita, bless her equine soul, pulled a lot of tricks to teach me how to be a better listener. Out of pure stubbornness or testing me, she’d drift closer to the ball and make it impossible for me to hit it. Eventually, that taught me how to keep a soft leg to push her in the other direction. She taught me how to pay attention and be aggressive, because merging on horseback is a different ball game entirely. That’s all to say, I wasn’t a bad rider. I was learning something new. Suddenly, I had to have eyes on the back of my head. The way Bochita shifted her body told me a horse was nearby. Learning with her became an intuition and I’m certain it’s making me a better horse person.

In the beginning, I was awkward. I was clunky. And instead of getting mad and embarrassed about it, I needed to lean in and learn a thing or two to be better. Polo taught me how to be calm. It taught me how to have patience, above all, for myself. Something I had forgotten how to do until Bochita and polo and galloping down a field with a mallet raised to the high heavens taught me. These situations of vulnerability and bravery are a huge part of what learning does for us.

Which brings me to this: If I don’t know the depth of what I know now, what does that say about all of the things I don’t actively practice knowing.

Okay—let me type that again.

I’ve known horseback riding like the wrinkles on my palm for years. But, polo brought me to an entirely different level of the craft. So, how can I be open to learning new things I’m not passionate about? What can I do better? Openness to learning is a goddamn superpower, so what can I apply to my everyday to be uncomfortable?

Committing to being a lifelong learner can do so much for us. It helps us learn more about ourselves and, in turn, helps us become better versions of who we are in our communities and world.

Learning new things is self-work. It sucks. But, committing to being a lifelong learner can do so much for us. It helps us learn more about ourselves and, in turn, helps us become better versions of who we are in our communities and world. I’ve been tasking myself to learn more than polo this summer. It’s important to do that. And to challenge myself to continually learn new things that make me uncomfortable.

And we don’t need to hurt ourselves in the process. A deep silence revives listening and that’s the first step of learning something new. In polo, in civil rights, in politics, in science—the first step is hearing people out, reading their stories, and understanding the rules of the game. 

I read a quote from Rumi, as translated by Coleman Barks, once: “Do not pretend to know something you have not experienced.” In huge part, this is a monumental tidbit I took away on learning. As humans, we have a tendency to puff our chests and act like we know everything. I don’t know if it’s to save face or an element of survival. But, it sucks. And we have to change it. Unless we experience something, we can’t truly know it. But, we can listen in the process and work to fix experiences for others. And, truly, for ourselves.

For some reason, while writing this, I thought of the word “elasticity.” Because, physically, learning makes us feel flexible—as if our rebound is better. So, I googled “why does learning make my brain more elastic.” A lot of articles popped up right away about the elastic brain and how a fixed mindset is close-minded and negative in the fast-paced world we live in today. According to this article I found in Medium, our brains are able to adapt to changes, improvise, and downsize complex tasks into more manageable ones. Most importantly, because of this, the best innovators can shift their perspective. We’re curious. We ask questions. We’re imaginative and open and observant. 

We listen. We learn. We get it wrong. We try again. Progress is our biggest gift.

Another article I found via EdSurge talks about the “joyful struggle” in learning, which highlights the benefits of leaning into the struggle because being physically and emotionally uncomfortable is the key to bravery and learning. 

Take it from my polo story. I’ve been practicing polo for a month and a half. I can hit the ball at a full canter. Bochita has more confidence in me. I can hit the ball backward to my fellow defenders. Guys, I even got my first goal last weekend. This all started from hitting a tiny ball from the ground with a mini mallet, then trying it on horseback, failing miserably, and doing it again and again. This all started from trying something new and being open to joyously sucking at it.

We listen. We learn. We get it wrong. We try again. Progress is our biggest gift. Hitting the ball at the walk has become as natural as riding and I’m able to look back and see how far I’ve come; how effortless each lesson onward can become, too.

What have you tried to learn lately that made you a stronger human?

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