Learning Is Supposed to Be Uncomfortable

The process our workshop leader asked us to follow was simple enough. We broke into small groups as she directed, taking turns being the “leader” while the others in the group played various roles. She was a good teacher — she described what we had to do, then showed us how, then asked us to do it. Describe, demonstrate, do. That’s a solid teaching methodology.

But I was finding the do part far more difficult and stressful than I had anticipated. I was outside my comfort zone, clumsy, tentative. I tried to follow her directions, but I stumbled in front of the others, and it felt embarrassing.

Here’s the thing: While the act of learning is primarily intellectual, behavioral, or methodological, the experience of learning is primarily emotional. And it’s the emotional experience of learning — of being a beginner and making mistakes, often publicly — that often keeps people from even trying to learn.

Later that day I met a woman who was teaching a different workshop at the retreat center.

“You’re so lucky,” she said. “I haven’t participated in a personal development program for 30 years.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“I lead workshops,” she told me. “And I’m known. I couldn’t participate in one.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because people trust me as a leader,” she responded. “They see me a certain way. I think they might lose trust in me if they saw me as a participant.”

“I don’t want to be harsh,” I told her, “but honestly, I wouldn’t trust you as a leader if I didn’t see you learning as a participant.”

And yet, I understand her fear. Because while learning may not be that hard, being a learner — a beginner at something — can be very hard. Especially in a group. And especially when we see ourselves, and want to be seen by others, as skilled and confident.

In fact, being a beginner — being awkward, uncoordinated, inept — can even feel shameful. But it’s not. It’s just a stage we have to go through in order to become graceful and coordinated and competent. And our unwillingness to experience this stage can hinder our future growth. This is especially true of areas where you’re already an expert.

I’ve written or contributed to 15 books related to leadership. I coach the most senior leaders of prominent companies. I teach leadership programs. I’ve been studying leaders and leadership for more than 30 years. I’m the CEO of a company that helps people become stellar leaders. And I still spend at least three weeks every year going to various — and often unusual — personal development programs to help me become a better leader.

In the last month I’ve gone to two weeklong programs, one called The Radically Alive Leader and one for therapists working with couples and relationships. (I attended the latter to learn techniques to help partners and senior leaders face their issues and work more effectively together.)

At various times in both programs, I fumbled, felt like a beginner, tried new techniques and felt awkward, even felt shame for not being better at a skill or a technique. And those are hard feelings to feel. But they are the inescapable growth pains that come with learning, developing, and becoming better at something.

So what can we do to make it a little easier?

First, know that it’s brave to be a beginner. Understand that it takes courage and vulnerability to expose your weaknesses and try new things.

Then look for learning situations where the stakes are low — maybe a class where you’re not expected to be an expert or you don’t know anyone else. Admit, out loud, to the rest of the workshop if it makes you feel better, that you are going to take some risks to approach something in a new way. Be the first to raise your hand and try something, letting others know that you may flub it.

And feel everything. That’s what I call emotional courage. If you are willing to feel everything — embarrassment, shame, failure, awkwardness — then you can do anything.

And whatever you do, don’t stop learning. Go to workshops. Push yourself, especially in the areas where you are already accomplished, so you can get even better. Keep thinking of yourself as a learner. Take risks to try new things.

After that role play experience, we debriefed as a group and I revealed to everyone my stressful experience. Several people thanked me for raising the issue — they felt exactly the same and were grateful that I spoke about it openly. It reduced some of the tension they were feeling.

I wish I could say that by the end of the weekend workshop I was completely comfortable and relaxed in all our activities. But that’s not the case. Maybe I’m a little more comfortable. But learning takes time and comfort takes experience.

That said, there is one thing the workshop did make me more comfortable doing: staying in the discomfort of learning long enough to learn.

Originally published on Harvard Business Review.