Learning is Uncomfortable, or Why Self Help is Misleading

If you find your calling, everything will fall into place. You will receive a “sense of energy” or “flow”. Your inner voice will speak its “truth” and you will always feel like you have made the right choice. If you “align your personality with your purpose then no one can touch you“. Sound familiar? These might, because I’ve pulled them from popular life advice articles. These claims sound right to us, they sound (much like, it’s claimed our calling does) true. But I believe that I see evidence every day in the classroom that these claims and ones like them do us a grave disservice when it comes to our own personal development, growth and learning.

A picture of hot air balloons over a desert with inspiring words written on it
Balloons by foam. Available from Flickr: https://flic.kr/p/oqvMzp

Why are these beliefs troublesome? They feel right, and everyone wants to find their calling in life. By simplifying purpose though, I think they overlook important facts about how difficult true growth is, and how meaningful the experience of difficulty can be for growth. Though not explicit, the unspoken subtext of this and similar advice is this: If you find your true calling, if your purpose is aligned with your true self, then the steps you take in the process of achieving that calling will be smooth and without struggle. And this is just plain wrong. On the contrary – most meaningful growth requires tremendous struggle. Learning is uncomfortable.

I am learning two skills right now that are way outside my comfort zone. Firstly, I’m learning how to speak and write in a new language and secondly, I’ve taken up a martial art. As an academic, I’m more into book learning than anything physical, and as an introvert, I have a difficult time speaking to someone in English, let alone a language that I barely know. This means that whenever I practice either of these developing skills I feel embarrassed, I struggle, I make mistakes, I feel stupid, and neither of these things feel natural, easy, or feel like they’re falling into place. They don’t “flow”. And I certainly don’t feel untouchable. And this is ok.

Does this mean that I’m just not meant to learn a new language or practice martial arts? Some people might think that if they’re not naturally inclined to these things, then they just shouldn’t continue to do them – it’s not meant to be. But I have another perspective. Sometimes things are going to be difficult. You will struggle. You will feel embarrassed. You will definitely not feel like you are “in the zone”. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth doing. To truly grow as a person and learn something new, you have to take risks – you have to put yourself in uncomfortable places, you might have to struggle a little. But this struggle will teach you more about yourself than coasting through an easy lesson or credential. The struggle will also help build your mental capacity, your resilience and your ability to succeed in a wider variety of situations.

Sometimes things don’t come easy, and you have to fight harder for them. However, in pushing through the things that aren’t easy, you will learn. More importantly, the things you learn when you push through will stay with you longer term, than something that you’ve crammed for a test or last minute late night essay. The language learning community recognizes this. The most important part of learning a new language is pushing yourself out of your comfort zone. The second most important part is pushing through – sticking with your practice as long as it takes.

These strategies are necessary for any type of growth, I think. In the classroom, this means that sometimes the things you need to learn will not be easy. You will struggle, you will get tired and bored due to the amount of repetition you need. You will not always feel as though you are “in the zone” or experiencing “flow”. But even when you feel the struggle, or feel stupid or embarrassed, you are probably still exactly where you need to be. Having these negative experiences doesn’t mean you’re not “aligning your purpose with your personality”. All it means is that you’re growing. And growth is a good thing.

Learning is Uncomfortable, or Why Self Help is Misleading

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