Our Comfort With Discomfort

Learning takes place in broad arcs and in my own work i describe it as starting with disturbance: either a disturbance that we find within ourselves, or one that is imposed from the outside.

Our Comfort With Discomfort

As example of the first instance: i had a conversation last week that sparked curiosity, which led me to a community, who guided me towards a book, which i am now starting to read. The conversation introduced disturbance into my current understanding, and then various tools (search and social) helped me find community, insight, resource, and space to learn.

An example of the second, where ‘disturbance’ is imposed from the outside, would be when i had to learn how to use a new password management tool: the need was imposed by a systems administrator, and i had no choice in the matter.

Both forms of provocation led to learning, but the route by which i came into it varied.

My examples could have been different, as the distinction is not between learning ‘skills’ or ‘knowledge’. I could operate in a community which has beliefs, and my desire to ‘belong’ may lead me to learn new ideas. The disturbance, in that case, would be social and implicit: if i wish to belong, i must be credentialed with both knowledge, and the vocabulary that surrounds it. In a conversation with a learning scientist this week i found myself in that space: to be credible in the conversation i had to switch my vocabulary into a more formal and academic tone, which was not necessary strictly to communicate my story, but was necessary to demonstrate membership of a clique. So the disturbance in this instance was my desire to be accepted.

It’s worth considering how much of the disturbance we rely on in Organisational learning is imposed, versus discovered from within. Often i think we bus people up to the front gate, imposing the need to ‘attend’, even if we intend to use more social models of design, or exploratory approaches to design.

Whilst both models of approaching learning are valid and widespread, there is one factor that is unique to learning as a process of willing discovery, as opposed to imposed retention or need. And that is our comfort with discomfort.

Learning could be viewed as happening through two stages (this is an abstraction, but i hope a useful one): first is exploration of something new within our existing frame of understanding (our settled ‘meaning’), and secondly comes the fracturing or willing disassembly of that existing meaning.

As i said, this view of learning is somewhat of an abstraction, because it treats our certainty and held knowledge as the castle, and the new knowledge as the assault upon it, but in that sense this abstraction allows us to usefully explore how we come to learning, and how we respond to the discomfort.

It’s easy to say ‘i am open to new ideas’, but the reality is that i am not. Or i am not always. I may be open to them if they challenge me slightly, and appeal to my innate sense of what is true, but i may reject them altogether if they invalidate my certainty or power in some way, or if they threaten my underlying coherent schemas of meaning: essentially if they leave me disconcerted or uncertain in some way. And this may be a conscious or subconscious transaction.

The impact of this is reasonably clear: whilst imposing disturbance is easy, imposing learning is not. And whilst the process of fracture and reframing may be common in both routes, we may need to pay attention to the sequencing, safety, and choreography of this within exploratory and discretionary approaches.

Another way of saying this would be to say that you can push so far, but not the whole way.

Understanding our comfort with discomfort is neither simply a logical, nor a purely emotional and conscious, challenge. It is possible that the learning will be inherently uncomfortable, and that this discomfort is unavoidable. But the fracture of the existing frame does not need to be violent or imposed.

This is the nature of the challenge: to craft learning spaces and experiences that are both uncomfortable, but also engaging, that are transformative as well as feeling safe (enough). But not necessarily entirely safe for our existing ideas and certainty.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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