Mills: Outside the comfort zone—the vulnerability of learning

In today’s workplaces, we are constantly required to process new information, master new tasks and adapt to ever changing technology.

Lifelong learning is not just a voluntary choice anymore.

In today’s workplaces, we are constantly required to process new information, master new tasks and adapt to ever changing technology.

Of course it’s an good mental exercise and it can be highly rewarding. But learning can also make us cranky.

It has been my own personal experience that learning something new is when I feel the most incompetent.

That isn’t a comfortable place to be. Even though I know I will eventually “get it,” the early steps of venturing into unfamiliar territory can be stressful, even if the learning curve isn’t steep.

Not everyone admits to this, but I’m fairly certain that most people feel this way.

The emotional side of learning is quite fascinating. There is a necessary state of vulnerability that goes along with real learning.

We are outside our usual comfort zone and it can be unnerving.

Learning is good for us but it is also difficult and everyone experiences it differently.

Some people get energized by the mere idea of gaining new knowledge.

To them, it is a welcome challenge that leads to the personal satisfaction of mastering something new.

Others may feel quite vulnerable when their lack of knowledge is exposed, especially in the workplace where their performance is noticed and assessed. Their defences and anxiety levels go up as a result.

Learning involves a state of tension where we are between not knowing and finally understanding.

It helps to appreciate the natural stages of learning which are—unconscious incompetence (not knowing what we don’t know); conscious incompetence (being aware of what we don’t know); conscious competence (using new skills and applying new knowledge with more ease); and unconscious competence (becoming proficient).

I won’t get into each of these stages in detail here.

The point is that becoming skilled at something takes time and there is a predictable cycle to it.

With more awareness of which stage we are at in the process, we can go a bit easier on ourselves knowing that if we keep at it, we will progress to a higher level of competence.

That doesn’t mean it will be a stress-free experience—quite the contrary.

Learning something new means change and we all know that change is not necessarily easy.

In the workplace, the constant demands to do more and learn new things endlessly will put some people into a state of low-grade, persistent stress which will take a toll on them and everyone else around them if it is not managed well.

I saw a perfect example of this recently with one of my clients.

In this particular workplace, there had been a great deal of change in the last six months  involving new team members and a reshuffling of job duties.

Interestingly, the most experienced employee in the department had the most difficulty adjusting to a different workload.

As the senior employee, this individual enjoyed a reputation for being the team’s main source of knowledge and information.

What no one realized was how uncomfortable this employee was growing in that role as a result of having to learn unfamiliar tasks, perform other regular duties and train new co-workers all at the same time.

This individual did not make the link between all the learning that was going on and the internal stress that was building as a result.

In this case, the senior employee didn’t handle things well and became more than a little cranky.

Unfortunately, that behaviour led to a conflict situation with a co-worker that could have been avoided.

What is the main message here? We can all learn from the process of learning.

It’s a constant requirement in the workplace, so why not support each other through it?

We each need to find our own way of being okay with not knowing something temporarily and have faith that we will get there eventually.

That’s the real lesson.