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While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Or the Importance of Setting Learning Goals

There is a part of me that resists the whole idea of setting goals for lifelong learning. With the world of tests and degrees behind me for the most part, I welcome the opportunity to be a dabbler, a dilettante, a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. Why should I add the stress of achieving goals to my learning mix?

And then, I pick up my guitar.

You see, a guitar for me is symbol of all the joy that can come from learning, and at the same time, all the frustration. I play reasonably well, and I get a great deal of enjoyment out of doing it. And yet…

And yet, I am nearly always conscious of the fact that I cannot express myself on the guitar in the way that I would really like to. I don’t have the knowledge. I don’t have the chops. I haven’t achieved what I would really like to with the guitar, and there is a very simple reason why:

I never set clear goals for learning the guitar.

Well, if you have been reading Mission to Learn lately, you know that I’ve been focused on reflection as a learning habit. So, I’ve decided to turn some of that mental energy toward the subject of learning goals and that’s led me to what I think of as a First Principle of Learning Success:

You can’t separate your learning goals from your life goals

With this principle in mind, you need to ask the same three essential questions about your learning goals that you would ask about your life goals:

1. What is important to me?
For me, music is incredibly important, yet I’ve always tended to take it for granted and have not focused my time and efforts towards it in the way I might have.

2. What am I doing about it?
I’ve taken guitar lessons on and off since I was a teenager, and I play at least a little bit on most days, but I’m not where I want to be. Partly this is because I have not consciously acknowledged how important playing a musical instrument is to me and committed myself to learning. And, I have not committed to deliberate practice.

3. What can I get rid of?
The other key reason I have not achieved what I would like to with the guitar is that I let any number of less important things distract me. What are some of the things I can’t remove from my life so that I can find more time for focused learning?

Of course, these questions and the First Principle of Learning Success don’t apply only to your avocations, they also apply to your professional development, your spiritual development, and all other aspects of your life.

Finally, none of this is to suggest that all learning needs to be goal-driven. Far from it.

There is much to be gained from being a dabbler and dilettante at times. (The subject of a future post, I’m sure.) But I could do without the pangs I feel when I look at my guitar, and there are probably similar pangs you get from “symbols” in your life. Setting clear goals is the first step towards getting rid of them.

How does goal setting factor into your lifelong learning? I welcome any tips you can share about how you set and achieve your goals.


P.S. – For anyone is not familiar with it, the “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” in the title is an allusion to the Beatles classic penned by George Harrison, one of my favorite songs on The White Album. Here’s George playing it at The Concert for Bangledesh: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7qpfGVUd8c.

8 thoughts on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps – Or the Importance of Setting Learning Goals”

  1. Dear Mr Cobb, Health Blog & Other Troops,

    Thanks for these comments, they have helped me to better motivate myself, especially your comments health blog on goal setting. I have just started back @ uni studying a Diploma Course Teaching Adults which will lead to a MSc in same, & I am struggling with the amount of reading & other work, 20 hrs per week, but all of this keeps me going.
    Thanks Again, my 1st ever blog.
    Regards to all

  2. Goal setting is the process of deciding where one wants to go in life and then mapping out a series of steps to get there. Success is something we create for ourselves.

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  5. Bob – I studied piano some when I was a teenager and thought I might go to music school. I hate that I gave up too easily on it. Hope to try again at some point (after the guitar, of course!) I understand what you mean about it sometimes being a bit depressing to see a real virtuoso playing and feel its beyond your grasp, but it can also be incredibly inspiring. Hopefully much more of the latter than the former! – Jeff

  6. This really mimics my own struggle with learning the piano. Music in general, I think, is a little difficult to get your hands around. There are so many virtuosos to look up to, it really gets you down.

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