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Learning Is Supposed to Feel Uncomfortable

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Peter Bregman for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

Credit:  Jorg Greuel/Getty Images

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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 emotionalAnd 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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Peter Bregman is the CEO of Bregman Partners, a company that helps successful people become better leaders, create more effective teams, and inspire their organizations to produce great results. Best-selling author of 18 Minutes, his most recent book is Leading with Emotional Courage. He is also the host of the Bregman Leadership Podcast. To identify your leadership gap, take Peter’s free assessment.


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