Get out of your comfort zone

Lifelong learning means lifelong discomfort


You’ve heard it a million times. Maybe you’ve said it yourself: It’s important to be a lifelong learner! But what does this mean?

At Backbone Institute, we often start our sessions with a picture of life. It is a simple picture, just three concentric circles. The innermost circle is the comfort zone. We all know what that is. We love the comfort zone! It is filled with our routines and favorite things. It is where we are most confident.

Just outside the comfort zone is the learning zone. It is, by definition, uncomfortable!

The outermost circle is the panic zone. Nobody wants to go there.

Because we never know how quick a trip it is through the learning zone into the panic zone, we don’t often venture beyond the comfort zone. And why would we? Life is stressful enough maintaining our place of peace.

And yet the concept of lifelong learning is attractive. We feel virtuous just saying the words. Do we take the steps to make it happen?

It is true that as we learn and grow, our comfort zone grows, too. Think of all the new experiences you’ve had since you were a kid. From meeting new people to learning new subjects, and from trying different foods to exploring new roads, you have encountered a virtual encyclopedia of new things. Some you liked and wanted to do more of; others you didn’t like and decided to avoid.

Each of those new experiences created some discomfort. Depending on your interest, determination or the expectations placed on you, you powered through your uneasiness to learn. Maybe you fantasized about the day when you had finally learned enough to never feel uncertain or uncomfortable again.

Fat chance. Life doesn’t stand still. Knowledge isn’t finite. And things that were once sure as cement become fluid as water. Is that comfortable? No. Is it reality? Yes. Thus the need to be a lifelong learner.

Over the years, I have met and talked with many self-professed lifelong learners, and I have noticed a pattern. Many of these individuals like to learn more about things they are already good at or enjoy. Whether it is a particular field of study like architecture or electronics or biology, or a talent like singing or cooking or teaching, most of their self-directed learning is focused on things that make up their comfort zones.

Perhaps the social climate has something to do with this. People generally want to be right more than they want to understand what is foreign to them. You know what you know, after all. You see what you see. When someone tries to tell you reality is different, you resist. Additionally, when you develop true expertise, people come to you for advice or answers. This feels good, so you continue building experience in what you already know.

And before you know it, you are someone who has deep knowledge in a particular area, with little knowledge or curiosity about anything beyond. Your comfort zone is secure.

You, however, are a bore.

If you are serious about lifelong learning, prepare to be uncomfortable. In fact, make discomfort part of your comfort zone! How?

Start with a mindset of curiosity and attentiveness. Become a sponge rather than an expert. Set out each day with a determination to see what is, not what you wish. Silence the voice that says, “This is not real! These people don’t understand! I have never (fill-in-the-blank)!”

Record your thoughts and experiences. Lifelong learning systematically captures the new for the purpose of reflecting on it in light of other things you have observed or experienced. Appreciate instead of judging, welcome instead of dismissing, and humbly recognize that as much as you know, there is a vast world of knowledge still to be explored. The old expression captures this idea well: The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know.

Lifelong learning gives you enormous power. Are you willing to experience – and learn to appreciate – lifelong discomfort?

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Susan Marshall is an author, speaker, and Founder of Backbone Institute, LLC, whose mission is to create a stronger, more confident future one person or team at a time. Her work over nearly 30 years with leaders in public and private sector industry, non-profit agencies, and public education is dedicated to building strong leaders who in turn create successful organizations, transform school systems, and develop leaders at all levels.

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