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The paradox of learning

Let me show you a paradox that has bothered me for many years. Imagine a square. The width of the square represents a unit of time and the height a unit of improvement in skills.

A simple square.

Let’s draw a thick line over the bottom side of the square. It means that your skills stayed the same over the period. However, if you learned something new, your skills increased. In that case, let’s connect the bottom left and upper right corners. The angle of the connecting line can vary depending on the skill increase, but let’s keep it simple.

An empty square, a square with a thick line over its bottom side indicating no increase in skill, and a square with a thick line connecting its two opposite corners indicating an increase in skill.

Now, we’re going to build something with those basic building blocks. Imagine a person who receives early education, starts working, learns something new on the job, and then continues working at that level until they retire. The skill level can be precisely what is required for the job, and the work performed can be outstanding throughout the whole period.

A chart with a horizontal axis labeled ’time’ and a vertical axis labeled ‘skill’. A line on a chart goes from the origin of the axes right and up in the beginning, and then continues completely flat until the rightmost part of the chart.

We need to add one more element to the mix–how comfortable the person felt during this time. Learning in school is usually not comfortable. Students are presented with new information and concepts that they have to understand and learn. There’s almost always testing and grading. Some students find it fun, others don’t, but it’s uncomfortable for all because everyone is confronted with something novel and expected to integrate and use that new knowledge to perform a novel task (from simple reading and writing to complex math).

It’s the same when starting a new job. A person has to learn how everything (processes, tools, machinery, or similar) and everyone operates. Again, this can be exciting for some but is uncomfortable for all. Being asked to do something for the first time and being paid for it while still not sure if you can do it–knowing others will rely on you–is stressful.

With this in mind, let’s add a discomfort level next to our chart. More specifically, the level of accumulated or experienced discomfort over time. A person had to learn and do new things in three time segments and was uncomfortable but also increased their skill. There was no discomfort in other time increments where the skill level remained the same because the person had to apply their existing skills and knowledge to perform various known tasks. The overall discomfort that was experienced through the period is three out of ten.

The same chart as before with the addition of a vertical bar on the side labeled ‘discomfort’. The bar is filled 30% from the bottom. The fill matches the height of the end point of the line in the chart.

Let’s turn to a slightly different situation. Imagine that the start is the same, but as soon as the person gets familiar with their new job, they look for new learning opportunities: asking for more responsibility; signing up for additional training; or even changing roles, jobs, or industries after a while. If they engage in the right way, every opportunity will increase their skill and experience. At the same time, changing their environment frequently and constantly catching up and learning something new is stressful and uncomfortable. If we follow the same logic as before, the accumulated discomfort level is eight out of ten.

The same chart as before. The line in the chart rises much higher indicating higher skill levels with the matching discomfort level at 80% in the bar on the side.

Here’s the crux: however you rearrange those blocks, if there is an increase in skill, there’s also more discomfort. Actually, discomfort comes first because it’s a necessary part of learning, and if that is overcome, the skill increases. More discomfort, more learning, more skills.

It is a tough bargain. Feel good all the time and you’re probably not progressing much. However, if you learn and get better, you’ll struggle along the way and feel like you’re not going anywhere. Hence the paradox.

It took me some time to figure this out, especially how to cope with it. The uncomfortable feeling is always present–you can’t escape it. Instead, you have to learn to love it. When you recognize the struggle, accept that it’s part of the learning process. I understood it only after going through the cycle many times in various fields and roles. Now I’m at a point where I get excited when I struggle because I know what awaits me at the end, even though it doesn’t feel nice.

A note of caution. There can be too much stress and discomfort, and no learning happens in those situations. So the area you’re trying to learn should be outside and adjacent to your comfort zone, not so far out that you feel completely lost.

And that’s it. When going gets tough, use discomfort as a signal that you’re growing. It’s not an annoying side effect of learning–it’s a critical and necessary ingredient.

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