Think you can’t learn new tricks? Think again: Lessons from a lifelong learner

Mark Goulston interviewed Bruce Heller, Ph.D. of The Heller Group, Inc. about how he defied stereotypes and became a lifelong learner. Heller shares his strategies for overcoming self-doubt to increase your educational opportunities.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

Do you view yourself as an old dog who can’t learn new tricks? Here is what I discovered about learning new skills from someone who perceived himself as just a “dumb jock” in high school.

Mark Goulston: I understand you went from almost failing out of college to earning your doctorate and being asked to join Phi Beta Kappa. Could you tell me what happened?

Bruce Heller: My first recollection was back in the fifth grade when my parents sat me down and told me I needed to go to special classes since I had problems with verbal skills.

In the next week, I started going into a special classroom with just a few students. I don’t remember the teacher or even what was taught. I only remember, 56 years later being labeled has having problems with verbal skills.

At that time, my salvation was sports. I stayed after school and played handball and walked around with the playground coach helping him put locks on all the gates. I remember walking with him when it was getting dark. Looking back, I just didn’t want to go home.

Then in high school, I came home, and it was report card day. My sister, about two years older, handed my parents her report card. They both smiled. I looked at her report card, and she had A’s in English, Math, Science, Social Studies and Composition with only one C in Physical Education.

My parents then asked to see my report card. I handed it to them, and they looked at it, and their expression was no expression. They said I must be doing the best I can. I then looked at my report card and saw C’s in English, Math, Science, Social Studies, and Health Education and one A in Physical Education which was playing football. I was a perfect A student throughout high school in football.

Bruce Heller shares his life story and how he became a lifelong learner.
Bruce Heller. Photo – The Heller Group

Then during my junior year of high school, I was told to see the college counselor. Even after 50 years, I could see her face. I was seated at a table, 90 degrees from her, and again without emotion, said: “From your test scores, students like you don’t pass their sophomore year of college.” I remember not having any reaction or emotion.

Once at San Diego State I was overwhelmed with the process of starting classes. I bought these large textbooks. I remember walking into my psychology class, and there were 150 students in a theatre type room watching a TV of the professor lecturing. After the first lecture, exiting the classroom a barely audible inner voice said, “you will have a Ph.D. before you are 28.” I dismissed the voice but cataloged it in my head. I debated the voice internally with “no way, I barely got out of high school.”

Then about 10 weeks into the semester, I had mid-terms. I studied hard and ended up with a D minus average. I was devastated. I cried to my parents that I should come home and go to a JC since this was too hard and I was failing. They suggested I see a counselor before making such a decision.

I made an appointment with Dr. Cummings. He asked why I was there and I told him that I am about to fail out and thinking of going to a JC. I told him I was spending time studying. He nodded to show he was listening to understand. He then replied, “I think your problem is you don’t know how to study.” I was stunned since this was completely foreign to me. I asked, “How do I learn to study?” He said to pick up a few books and practice the techniques.

RELATED STORY: Help yourself by overcoming your resistance to assistance

I left our session and walked over to the bookstore. I found two books. One was called Learning to Learn, and the other was “How to Study in College.” I then took the books to my dorm, and I remember bright sunny days, sitting outside and underlying each sentence of Learning to Learn. I memorized the techniques and started implementing them.

In the next ten weeks, my grades drastically improved. I ended up the semester with a 3.5 G.P.A. One week after finals I received a letter that I had made the Dean’s List. I was shocked, and my parents were stunned. Me, Dean’s List after a D- midterm average. Unthinkable.

The advice by Dr. Cummings saved my career. I found a deep untapped potential that I thought was not there. I graduated being Phi Beta Kappa, Magna Cum Laude, and having been one of 10 students to receive an undergraduate research grant from the National Science Foundation grant.

After following my teenage fantasy of being a surf bum in Hawaii, I applied to a Ph.D. program at USC. I was accepted and finally completed my doctorate. Me, a C- high school student with straight A’s in football with a doctorate. Unthinkable.

MG: Was there a turning point, a pivot that caused the change?

BH: Looking back, I think my conversation with Dr. Cummings. His diagnosis that I needed to learn to study and his prescription to buy books on study skills. Without his advice, I may have dropped out, returned home, and been lost academically.

MG: How did you overcome the negative labels you experienced?

BH: Hard work. I decided to out study all the other students. In grad school, the epiphany that I loved the world of ideas because they were safe.

Mark: Where did you get the courage and defiance never to give up?

Trying to get something that was unconscious, unattainable and elusive. My father acknowledging he was proud of me. Being bullied because I was fat. Then saying to myself “enough” and defiantly telling myself no one would ever bully me, physically hurt me, or intimidate me again. Enough.

MG: What is your advice for anyone who is struggling academically or professionally?

BH: Don’t believe anybody but yourself. Learn to have faith and belief in yourself no matter what.

Find your motivation. Find your unique triggers and motivators.

You can learn anything about anything. You need to be alone, separated from others and quietly learn, practice, practice again and practice even more.

Take the “leaps of faith” to always try something new.

Use failure as a springboard to success. Use each failure to fuel anger and defiance to find a way.

Learn incessantly. Learn to learn.

Ask for help.

Enter the pain of perceived failure. Turn towards trouble instead of away from it.

Failure is never final. Find inside the trouble the “inner place” where the impossible becomes possible.

Visualize the picture of success and each required task.

As you turn towards trouble, find the safety within the problem. I discovered the world of ideas is safe. The world of people is not so safe.

MG: Is there anything else you would like to share that would be helpful to others?

BH: If a poor student, destined for failure can do it, so can you.

Just remember — Stay positively defiant towards any inner doubts. Turn towards trouble. Find a way. Ask for help. Learn incessantly.

Bruce Heller, Ph.D. of The Heller Group, Inc., has a long history of success in helping key players in a wide range of industries achieve higher performance, productivity and profitability, using a multilevel system of assessment, coaching and consulting for executive leadership and organizational efficiency.

Join the Conversation: Share your thoughts on Dr. Goulston’s latest article on our Facebook page.

Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

Connect with Dr. Goulston through FacebookTwitter, or LinkedIn. His books are available on Amazon. Check out his videos on YouTube or take advantage of free resources available at