Reply to Ger Driesen: Should Learning be Uncomfortable

Ger thanks for the post and apologies for the interminable time it has taken for this reply. Things mull over in my head and then explode onto the page. I have tried hard to add something to an already rich debate. The advantage of the early responder is that the field is quite open!

One of my biggest bug-bears with Happy Sheets is the pre-ordained assumption that being ‘happy’, in the immediate aftermath of a learning event, is somehow the highest aim and achievement of a learning experience. This assumption has somehow got twisted up into ideas about motivation, enjoyment and having ‘fun’. What we have to do is separate all this out and your post has begun to do that very well. Thanks for doing all this and getting a great little debate going. It made me pause to think and it has probably done the same for the hundreds (yea thousands!) who have read the Blog but not replied. So you have loosed an idea into the community and it will run on and on past the natural shelf-life of the blog.

Here are four points that I would like to make:
1. Great learning moves you on in some way. Sometimes this is a consolidation and an extension of what you already know/do. That leap is not painful at all; more reassuring and life enhancing .

2. Sometimes it is a challenge and a fundamental challenge to what you believe and you need to reconsider and modify your behaviour. This can be painful and slow, but nevertheless, inexorable. And the reflection on the journey is always interesting and worthwhile.

3. Occasionally shock treatment needs to be applied: i.e. a crisis or a massive failure of some sort needs to be addressed. The whole experience is painful but the critical point is that you learn and learn fast. At this juncture you need and want to understand and move forward. You are open to a big shift and need some kind of forward movement. So learning actually tempers the disquiet.

4. There are odd times when the learning breaks into your comfort zone and hits you between the eyes. All the things that you thought were true or the behaviours you thought were appropriate are challenged and you are made to confront the old with the new. This can be extremely uncomfortable at the time and almost epiphanic as you reflect.

What I think is critical, is not the degree of discomfort but one’s openness to change. So the discomfort is mitigated by the process of learning or not, as the case may be.

Getting out of your comfort zones is important now for individuals, and for organisations. That is why we bang on about diversity, contrary views, and the need for challenge. So the debate is not: is good learning uncomfortable, rather how can learning make sense of contradiction and challenge of which discomfort can be a part.

Donal Carroll in “Managing Value in Organisations” quotes the CEO David Varley’s 3 cardinal sins of leadership: “being blind, being blind to being blind, and making that subject undiscussable.” In other words survival is not about trying harder, but learning harder.

One of the best development exercises can be a stretch assignment which, by definition, is uncomfortable but not impossible. In that small elision between the two states is a frantic learning process.

So bring on discomfort. And don’t get learning mixed up in trying to provide certainty. That is not part of our world now and learning has to exploit that not try to hide that.

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