Proudly Supporting Entrepreneurial Minds Since 2008

Be Uncomfortable

~by Peter Powell

At Team Academy we believe in learning by doing. This means that students often have to go out and discover for themselves what works and what doesn’t. When they first arrive, most students are used to being spoon-fed information. They go through a phase of “unlearning” where they have to get used to the discomfort of learning by doing. Though learning by doing has been shown to have far better long term effects on both memory and actual capacity, it is also an uncomfortable process that, in the beginning, involves a lot of failures and learning from mistakes. In general, programmes which apply a learning by doing approach have been shown to have a lower over satisfaction score initially from participants, but a higher score once the programme is completed. This is one of the reasons programmes like Team Academy are so rare: They are uncomfortable!

In the traditional system students are used taught what to learn, how to learn it and how to repeat it. How often have you have lost marks because you got the right answer but didn’t follow the teacher’s method? This way of learning is convenient for educating large groups of people to an average standard. It makes it possible to generate the same results year after year. The problem is that these results aren’t what the world needs and this way of learning is definitely not what the students need. In fact, the World Economic Forum reported that in the coming decade employers will place increasing value on creative thinking, critical thinking, interpersonal skills, communication and presentation skills. All soft skills learned best by practising them, not by memorizing the “right” answer. So why don’t more schools and students adopt a “learning by doing” approach?

The challenge in learning by doing is that it is uncomfortable. Whenever you do something new, especially if you’re not given a pre-digested formula by a teacher, you go through a period of being bad at what you are trying to do. For instance, if you want to learn to play football you must accept that you’re probably going to miss the goal a lot at the beginning. Nevertheless, if you continue past the initial incompetence phase you will start to make some of your shots. If you keep going you’ll eventually begin to master the sport to a point where you can be truly creative. However, many people (especially as they get older) are not able to withstand the psychological discomfort of being bad at something, so they give up either completely or in part, i.e. only practising the things they are good at rather than what they’re not able to do yet, like a music student who only plays the beginning of a song over and over because they already know that bit.

If you never learn to accept the uncomfortable first phase of being bad at something, you will never be able to do anything other than follow the instructions and colour inside the lines. However, if you can learn to face discomfort consistently there is almost nothing you can’t learn. When facing discomfort, it is important to understand why we are afraid of being bad at something. The reason isn’t particularly surprising, quite simply, we dislike being bad at something because we have all learned to equate how good we are at something with how much other people value us. School and society, in general, teach us that success and performance =  acceptance, appreciation and even adoration. How many children decide to play a sport after seeing the attention a sports-star receives. In contrast, failure is seen as negative and can result in rejection (i.e. you’re not good enough to join the basketball team).

One of the keys to applying a learning by doing approach and overcoming being afraid of discomfort is to focus on the process of learning. Instead of setting goals based on outcomes, set goals based on process. For instance, if you want to improve your 3 point shot in basketball, you could set a goal to “hit one 3 point shots every game”. This most likely will result in failure and discouragement, especially when you first start out (which is when you most need positive reinforcement). Or you could set your goal to be “try at least five 3-pointers in a game and spend 15 minutes every practice on them”. Regardless of whether you hit or miss the shots at the beginning, you’ll still have succeeded by trying and practising them (because that was the goal), you’ll be more likely to turn the practice into a habit, and you’ll probably end up with a far better 3-point shot. This applies to many other areas, from work to personal life.

What are your process goals going to look like? How will you overcome your fear of discomfort?


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