The t-shirt tan has faded and I’m remembering to reach for a jacket on my way out the door, but memories of jumping into warm azure water are still close to my heart following a family trip to Mexico’s Caribbean coast over the December holidays. The trip was a lesson on “jumping in” on several levels: launching my landlubber self into the water and trusting the snorkel to keep me breathing, leaping over my shortcomings in Spanish, dodging eye rolls and conversational barbs inserted by my teen daughter. Overall, I convinced myself to jump in and to have a good time. “It’s beautiful and we were on vacation for god’s sake — time to swim past the places where I usually get stuck!”
Adult learning can be like a Caribbean vacation, am I right? Here’s my rationale for that somewhat tortured analogy:
- Adult ed means leaving the familiar behind: Whether it’s a learning a new language, adopting new software, or leaning in to new skills for serving on nonprofit Board, in order to learn something new we must leave the shore of the usual ways behind. Sometimes that departure is rapid (for example when you change jobs or industries), and sometimes it’s more gradual (when you take a series of classes or follow a years-long course of professional development). But learning always involves some form of leaving the familiar behind, and for adults that can mean departing from habits developed over years.
- Leaving the familiar leaves us at a loss and adults don’t like that: As learners, adults are faced with shaking up their usual ways of doing things, which sounds reasonable and rational but feels awful. One of the things that makes adult ed most challenging, especially in professional settings, is that adults do not like to feel incompetent and at a loss. We expect ourselves and are expected by others to know what we are doing pretty much all the time.
- Learning = adapting to the challenge of feeling at a loss: When you first jump in you are at a loss and it takes time, guidance and practice to find your way. That process of finding your way is the essence of learning. What that leaves us with is that while jumping in can be messy and humbling, always looking good is self-limiting. Because always looking good comes at the expense of learning and growing.
So, the next time you’re faced with the opportunity to jump in yourself, or to guide a group into unfamiliar territory as a trainer/facilitator, remember that the discomfort is temporary and the whole experience might even be fun.
- “The Courage to be Uncomfortable” post by Procter & Gamble CEO David Taylor, where he explains “We all have to be willing to deal with a certain amount of discomfort in order to see what we’re truly capable of.”
- Learn Better by Ulrich Boser, particularly Chapter 2, Target, where he brings to light that “The best place to learn is just beyond what we can know or can do.”