I have a secret to share with you, one that’s taken me a really long time to take on board: personal growth and development isn’t always fun. In fact, there are a lot of times when it is painful and disquieting. We may think we like the idea of becoming better versions of ourselves. The reality is that doing so involves the sometimes difficult challenge of acknowledging our more imperfect versions, and also the distressing and disturbing process of going through change.
While the particulars of why we get frustrated with learning may be different, there are some generalizable truths that are important to keep in mind. A fundamental one is that our path to transformation of any meaningful consequence requires a liminal transition. In other words, we find ourselves needing to make the uncomfortable decision to let go of our perception of ourselves and our abilities. We need to immerse ourselves in unknown and uncharted waters, trusting that we will get somewhere. Eventually, we need to haul ourselves out on a different bank, having engaged in an experience that hopefully results in insight and change.
If all of that sounds fuzzy, metaphysical, touchy-feely and more than a little bit ethereal, welcome to the world of change and development. Our minds are anchored on our current reality; they value what we know and feel is safe. Letting go for far-flung adventures and exploration is not viewed as a happy place. There will be resistance and reluctance in equal measure, and actual progress forward may involve dragging your brain—kicking and screaming like a toddler—towards the well of knowledge and throwing it in.
An illustration might be helpful here (and I certainly have many examples to draw on from my own life). I have been developing a new workshop over the last few weeks. This is not a new process for me. Every workshop that is worthwhile, though, is its own deep dive. Research, thinking, structuring, development and revising. It’s an immersive experience that burns a lot of cycles and involves a great deal of emotional and intellectual engagement.
One of the things I have always wrestled with is my process of note-taking. There are ideas as they are developed, insights from articles and books I read, structuring and restructuring of outlines and ultimately planning out the final structure and content. Historically, I’ve used mind maps to build these. While they work, they become pretty unwieldy by the time I am done with any given workshop. I’ll often have as many as a half-dozen massive maps, with hundreds of entries each. Maps are great at organizing around one structure, but my challenge has always been in reframing and rethinking that structure, and building connections between disparate parts of the map (or across maps). Yes, it’s technically possible to do so. It is neither easy or pretty to manage, however.
Building this workshop, I decided to try out a new software package. Its advantage is that it is flexible, like a whiteboard with infinitely nest-able post-it notes, and the ability to connect, link, sort and sift the content in pretty much any way that you can imagine. (For those curious about such things, it’s a package called Tinderbox).
Flexibility comes at a price. There is a steep learning curve involved in using the package, and one of its most valuable and maddening features is its infinite flexibility. There is no clear path to get started, and anything that you might want to do can be done in one of several different ways. The best way to figure out how to use it is to dive in and try something, and then course-correct along the way. You’ll eventually find something that works for you, but it will require some adjustment and shifting.
In other words, it depends. My two favourite words, come back to haunt me (and trust me, the irony has not been lost on me). I persevered for a time in trying to use the software as I built the first module. It was a struggle, as I wrestled with the structure of my workshop, working through the capabilities of the software and trying to remember how to perform basic actions. While I was convinced that the new software would be a far better strategy, the temptation to revert back to what was known and familiar was enormous. Ultimately, I caved, and went back to my mind-mapping software once again.
This is what it feels like to try to learn anything significantly new and different. As open as you might be to the possibility (and that should not be taken for granted) the actual experience is often one of frustrating perceptions of inadequacy. Your aspirations of what is possible collide headlong with your inability—at least at the outset—to accomplish what you are trying to do.
Here’s the thing, though: progress requires you to accept that reality and work through it. Reverting back to what you know is abandoning the quest and retreating to the safety of what is familiar. To put not too fine a point on it, it’s giving up. Unless you persist in throwing yourself into the exploration, maddening and stressful as it is, you won’t get anywhere. Certainly you won’t get anywhere worthwhile and meaningful.
It seems unjust that progress requires a sufficient level of disturbance and discombobulation. That it does, however, seems to be an inevitable reality. I certainly haven’t found a way around it, and any time that I have opted for the comfort of the status quo over meaningful learning, I have come to regret it later.
As I mentioned at the outset, though, while the frustration of the experience is universal, the particulars of what drives it is often unique. Taking the time to unpack what is going on and why can be useful in not just figuring out a path forward, but also gaining an appreciation of your own learning biases.
When you next feel the discomfort that comes from throwing yourself into a learning process and feeling overwhelm and angst, try to stop and take time to sit with the experience for a few minutes. What is the anxiety, specifically? What are you feeling, and where is it coming from? Why do you feel uncomfortable?
The reasons can be many, and understanding what the reasons are—their source and how you are experiencing them—can be hugely insightful. You may have taken on board scripts that say you aren’t as smart or as capable as other people, and so you are interpreting the experience as proof that this is true. You may think yourself entirely capable, and therefore beating yourself up for not getting it—or for not getting it quickly enough. While what is ultimately perceived feels the same, these are two remarkably different motivations that come from opposing personal views of confidence and competence.
You may be feeling impatient with not being able to memorize and remember, of not keeping the particulars straight in your mind. Depending on how new—or how complex what you are trying to learn is—this can go on for an extended period of time. Even as you make progress on the simpler aspects, there will be subsequent complexities that trip you up and sustain feelings of frustration.
A significant part of what drives the difficulties we experience in learning and growing comes from a loss of control. Even if you are starting in a place where you know your current approaches are inappropriate, and where you recognize that continuing the way you have always done things is unsustainable, that place is at least familiar. You know how it works. You understand the inadequacies. You can compensate for shortcomings and problems. That sometimes feels easier than working through the learning journey towards better.
This gets exacerbated when you are working to a deadline, and you need to successfully learn and build a sufficient level of competence to actually get something done and deliver service. While experiential learning is great for trying things on for size, actually using the learning for its intended purpose is often a different and very real challenge. This is pretty much the situation I found myself in while trying to learn the new software. While I was making progress in figuring out how I wanted to use it, and getting familiar enough with the basic functions to at least move around, the deadline of building actual content for the workshop was looming. My retreat back to the safe familiarity of mind-maps was a strategic means of getting the first module developed.
Once you’ve been able to get a sense of where your experience of disquiet is coming from, it is possible to assess what a reasonable response actually is. If the problem is simply that our subconscious is deeply cranky because it doesn’t like feeling inadequate and incompetent, and has a raging need to succeed at all costs, then we can have a conversation with ourselves about the merits of continuing forward and getting better.
If our issues are wrapped up in feelings of inadequacy and inability to learn, then highlighting where we are making progress—and our instances of being able to learn in the past—can be successful. If the panic is a consequence of ambitious learning opportunity intersecting with impending due dates, then a temporary retreat may be tactically wise. In all instances, we need a handle on what is going on. With a clear picture of what’s upsetting our inner equilibrium, meaningful solutions become possible. Including throwing the raging toddler of our grey matter back into the pool of learning.
Above all, it is important to remember that the discomfort does not last forever. Learning and development is an unquestionable roller coaster. The desperate plunge you feel in the pit of your stomach as you go over the edge doesn’t ever go away. You can recognize the feeling for what it is, however, and anticipate the impending drop—as well as the inexorable climb up the other side. At least until you get back on the learning curve once again, and go around for another ride.