Remember the first time you rode a two-wheel bike? I do. I even imagined how it would be during trial runs with training wheels. I saw myself racing down the street, legs pumping for speed, deftly making turns into circles. Just like all of the other kids.
The day the training wheels came off was a big day. Heart pumping, palms sweating, I hopped on. I pushed off. I fell down. Hopped on again and got a gracious assist of a push-off. The bike was moving. Now what do I do? How do you stop it, again? How do I keep it straight? How much do I move the handles to turn? The wobbling, shaky 20 ft. ride to the end of the driveway was nothing like what I imagined it to be.
My wounded pride and I got back on the bike the next day, and the day after. Every day until I took for granted that I could hop on a bike and pedal away.
My first bike ride, and perhaps yours, is the perfect metaphor for the learning process. It requires stepping up, letting go, trial and error. And falling. Lots of falling and getting back up. Peter Jarvis, professor of adult learning at The University of Georgia, describes the sensations produced by the first bike experience as “disjuncture.” It is the state of disequilibrium in a novel experience that shakes us out of our comfort zone. It demands our attention. It is the feeling that our current knowledge or previous experiences (our self “biography”, according to Jarvis) isn’t helping. We become uncomfortable . Disjuncture motivates us to learn so we can close the gap from being uncomfortable to comfortable.
So, we become better with the new thing. We find our way. We practice. We commit it to memory. We take for granted that we know how to the thing that once made our palms sweat. Part of “take for granted-ness” is good, as we’d be really frustrated learning how to figure out how to speak, read or write every day. But too much “take for granted-ness” puts us in a comfort zone where we don’t do new things. We don’t experience disjuncture. We don’t have to learn. We become, as Jarvis describes, “trapped in the bars of our own minds.”
Even if we could arrange our careers to stay comfortable with what we already know and are good at, those things will change. We can stay in the same job, but it changes as we work with people from different cultures. We can sell the same products, but evolution in user needs will force them to change. We can work for the same company, but it may be sold to new owners. Even the things we try to keep the same will change, creating discomfort from that old friendly source.
The nature of disjuncture is sometimes you go to it and sometimes it comes to you. Reframe it as a friend instead of a threat. It’s the shake out of “take for granted-ness” that alerts us that things have changed. The good news is that we can change, too. We already know how to learn; recognize shake-ups as the motivation to do it.
Moments of greatness are possible when we choose the vulnerable step out of our comfort zones.
- Remind yourself of occasions in your life when you successfully learned something from the beginning; perhaps something that is now a strength. When talents become strengths, we sometimes forget that it wasn’t always that way.
- Do the thing you’ve been putting off because it’s unfamiliar, uncertain or unclear. If you can’t do it all, take on the parts you can master.
- Find someone for help and encouragement. Perhaps it’s a mentor, a friend or a teacher, but find someone who can show you the way and believes that you can. And when you breakthrough, pay forward his or her favor to someone else.
Remember, we’ll always wobble in the new stuff. But to get better or get to great, just remember how you learned to ride a bike.