The Ocillatory Theory of Learning

March 14, 2021 • ☕️ 5 min read

Learning how to learn is a skill that, like writing or exercise, has strengthened all my other pursuits.

Today I want to zoom in on a subtle aspect of meta-learning that’s been useful for me. I’m excited to dive into this topic because it doesn’t get much attention, yet it’s made my learning adventures far more enjoyable.

The Oscillatory Theory of Learning (a term I’ve just made up!) states that whenever we have a breakthrough in our learning journey, it will inevitably be followed by a setback. In other words, learning tends to work in a “two steps forwards one step back” rhythm.

On the surface, this statement might appear to be of little consequence. Yet, again and again I’ve found that aligning our expectations with reality can be the difference between success and failure.

Previously I’ve written about my desire to find more ease in my pursuits. My aim is to discover the dynamic balance between a life of single-minded striving towards my goals on one hand, and one full of small moments of awe and connection on the other.

The OTL has been essential for finding that balance this year. It’s a small mindset shift that allows me to let go of my anxious quest for improvement and trust the natural growth process.

Babies and OTL

To understand the theory, we have to take a closer look at the learning process. And where better to look than the pound-for-pound world champions of the learning world: BABIES!

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing a toddler taking their first steps and learning to walk, you’ll have noticed that it’s not a linear process. I’m 12 years older than my sister Izzy, so I got a front-row seat to the emergence of her walking ability.

There was the breakthrough moment, when suddenly one day, after many failed attempts, Izzy managed to get up on her tiny two-inch feet and walk, what to her must have seemed like 100 miles, all the way across the living room! Our whole family jumped for joy. She’d learnt to walk!

Except, of course, she hadn’t. She’d taken a few steps, and then she’d stumbled. It would be a long time before she’d be able to independently make her way around the world in bipedal fashion.

The OTL allows us to see that a breakthrough followed by stumbling is an inherent part of the learning process. And this is important because if we don’t have this expectation, we’ll assign negative meaning to our stumbling. Rather than seeing it as a sign of growth, we’ll assume that our breakthrough was illusory — that we fooled ourselves into thinking that we’d come such a long way when in fact, we hadn’t made any progress.

Those of us with a tendency for negative self-talk will berate ourselves for having celebrated a fake win. We’ll quickly lose motivation to stay on the improvement path and thereby kill our chances just at the moment we started to make progress.

My OTL breakthrough

The concept is fresh on my mind because the OTL came to my rescue last week. For a while now, I’ve been striving after the ideal of mindful productivity.

Sometime last year, it became apparent that the nose to the grindstone approach to success that our society encourages is just one of many. The underlying belief inherent in this approach is that accomplishing great things is impossible unless we suffer for it. Examining this assumption closely, I’ve found it to be a partial and unhelpful perspective.

And I made good progress towards this ideal. I stopped working late, started making time for long, leisurely walks and stopped measuring my worth by my output at work. The subtle pressure I put on myself to deliver good results and my secret desire to receive praise for those efforts became obvious. Once I realised the past conditioning that was driving these behaviours, I was able to set healthier boundaries around what I would and wouldn’t do.

And then last week happened.

This was a week when I forgot all about my lofty ideals. I worked way past “closing” time, I ingested sickly amounts of caffeine, putting myself in that amped-up, slightly neurotic state that is no fun at all. I came up with a vast array of rationalisations about why staying in front of the screen rather than going out for a walk was, in fact, the wise course of action. If it wasn’t for their detrimental effects, I would be in awe of the breath-taking mental acrobatics I can perform when I don’t want to face reality.

Towards the end of the week, the pushing beyond my limits was reaching its inevitable end: burnout.

Feeling this way, I remembered why I’d made mindful productivity a priority in the first place—and right on cue came feelings of hopelessness.

I thought I’d learnt these lessons. After all, I’d understood on a deep, embodied level why I felt the need to prove myself. It wasn’t that I’d heard a point by point analysis of why being a workaholic was counter-productive, weighed the pros and cons of it and decided that I was going to start taking it easy. Instead, this insight had hit me like a ton of bricks on a profoundly emotional level. I’d realised that growing up a poor immigrant, I’d internalised that I wasn’t good enough and that I would have to make up for that through achievement. The faulty logic of that conditioning had become completely transparent to me so that finally, I could let go of my identity as someone who would succeed no matter what.

So, how come I was falling back into old patterns? Had I deceived myself in thinking that I’d left all this conditioning behind?

Thankfully, from amongst the throes of self-pity, I remembered these lessons. I remembered that this was an unavoidable part of the journey. That rather than being a sign of failure, it was evidence that I was in the middle of a transformation. I was able to look at events from a higher perspective. I invited the voice in my head, the one telling me to give up on my fantasy of “self-growth”, to look out from this same vantage point, and once it did, it fell silent without any effort on my part.

This inner peace has been the most satisfying aspect of the teaching. I mentioned earlier that I’ve been searching for a way of life where accomplishing my dreams comes with flow and ease. Embracing this teaching has been a massive step towards this ideal. Letting go of the anxiety that I’m not making any progress and of the self-flagellation that usually follows has been liberating.

Now during these moments, I can be gentle with myself. I know that they’re temporary setbacks along the journey and that all I need to do is sit tight and weather the storm. Rather than trying to push through, as I would have done before, I step back and surrender to the growth process.


Trusting the process! That’s what this learning is all about. Yet, that is only possible if we understand how the process works. If we don’t realise that our happiest moments on the path will be followed by our most significant setbacks, we’ll lose motivation and give up.

When we know to expect this, that trust comes easier. The consciousness that this is a part of the process allows us to drop our self-punishment, get out of our own way, and move on to the next stage of development. In my experience, this reduced friction not only speeds up our evolution, it also makes it much more enjoyable. And that’s how I want my learning to always feel!