Learn to Be Uncomfortable
One of the most important skills today is the ability to be comfortable with being a novice. The world is changing so fast that new skills and knowledge make all of us feel uncomfortable. Embracing our inner novice, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and accepting being bad at something on the way to mastering it is the most important way to stay ahead.
“The ability to learn quickly is the most important skill to have.” –Erika Andersen
So argues Erika Andersen in her latest book, Be Bad First: Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future.
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses on leader readiness. She’s the author of three other books: Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. All of her books are full of actionable advice from her three decades of advising and coaching executives.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Erika about her research into being comfortable with being continuously uncomfortable.
Be Bad First
What does it mean to be bad first?
It means being willing to go back to being a novice – to being not-good at new things – over and over again. As we move through our lives, it becomes increasingly challenging to accept the need to “be bad first.” We come to rely on and identify with our expertise; we get used to being treated as knowledgeable and experienced. To have to go back to being a beginner in order to acquire new skills and knowledge – especially in the public setting of work, in full view of our employees, bosses, and sometimes our customers – can be scary, embarrassing and frustrating. I wrote Be Bad First because I’ve come to believe that in order to succeed in this ever-changing world, you must be able to learn new things continuously and well – and that requires, among other things, getting good at being bad first.
There’s a generational change from Boomers and Gen-X to Millennials that is also at play. How do different generations react to this concept?
Generally, we’ve found it’s somewhat easier for younger folks to be bad first in the service of learning new skills. They tend to be still in the process of developing their expertise and are often therefore less “stuck” in what they already know. Also, most Millennials have grown up experiencing daily change in technology, communication, society, and business – for them, keeping up with ever-accelerating change has been the norm for their whole lives. However, many Millennials have a hard time with other aspects of new learning – especially Aspiration and Neutral Self-Awareness.
4 Mental Skills for Learning
1. Develop Aspiration
Let’s talk about your ANEW concept. A, for Aspiration, is the first step.
The model at the core of Be Bad First consists of four mental skills for learning that we call ANEW: Aspiration, Neutral Self-Awareness, Endless Curiosity, and Willingness to Be Bad First. Becoming adept at these skills will allow you to be a high-payoff learner, a master of mastery.
Aspiration means, quite simply, wanting something that you don’t now have. In terms of learning, aspiration is key because we only learn the things we want to learn. For instance, you can say over and over that you want to learn Spanish – but if you don’t make the required effort, it means you don’t really want to do it.
“Great learners unearth and then build their aspiration.” –Erika Andersen
I believe we often tell ourselves we want to do things because we worry that if we don’t actually want to, there’s nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, that’s not true. You can change your level of aspiration: you can make yourself want to do something. The secret is to identify benefits that are personally motivating to you of doing or learning that thing, and then envisioning a future where you’re reaping those benefits. (You may have noticed that you do this automatically when you do want to do something.)
So for example, if you decided to ramp up your aspiration to learn Spanish, you’d think about ways in which you might benefit from doing that – and perhaps the one that really resonates for you is that it would enable you to be a part of the team that’s expanding your company into the Chilean market. You imagine yourself in a couple of years, on that team, living in Santiago and building new business. If that’s personally exciting to you, I suspect you’ll suddenly find yourself taking real steps to improve your Spanish.
By the way, the problem many Millennials have with Aspiration is their belief that wanting or not wanting to do things is permanent and unchangeable – and they tend to reinforce their not-wanting by saying things like “No, I don’t want to – it’s just not me.” However, I’ve worked with Millennials for whom the idea that they can consciously change their level of “wanting” is hugely liberating, once they accept it.
2. Cultivate Neutral Self-Awareness
N, Neutral Self-Awareness. That one grabbed my attention. I think all of us have witnessed someone who is completely unaware of something – thinking they have a strength when everyone else knows it is a weakness. What’s the best way to see yourself objectively?
Wonderful question! The place to start, when trying to become more neutrally self-aware, is to note how you’re talking to yourself about yourself. Our self-awareness (or lack thereof) lives in our mental monologue. We’re continually commenting on ourselves internally: I’m great at that – I’m terrible at that – I used to be good at that, but I’ve lost the knack – I’m terrified of trying new things – I don’t mind making mistakes – I’m a slow learner – I’m the smartest guy in the room – I already know that…. You get the idea. Sadly, this internal commentary can often be dead wrong – and we tend to accept it without question because it’s happening inside our own head, most often beneath our conscious awareness. It’s like subliminal advertising!
So the way to become more self-aware is to recognize and question what you’re saying to yourself about yourself. For example, let’s say your boss tells you that you need to get better at delivering tough news to your employees. Perhaps your first thought is, What? I’m good at that. I may not be as direct as my boss would like, but at least I don’t make my folks feel bad.
Once you notice that you’re saying this to yourself, rather than just accepting it as true, ask yourself, Is that accurate? That has the effect of taking you “off automatic” and causing you to examine your beliefs about yourself more consciously. You might then realize that you don’t really know if your self-talk is accurate. So then you ask yourself, What facts do I have in this area? You might then remember that one person on your team has been consistently missing deadlines, and you’ve been “waiting for the right time to mention it” for months. Or that quite often when you think you’re being clear with employees about changes you want them to make in their behavior, they don’t seem to get the message. Now your self-talk about where you’re starting from in this area might shift to something like, I can see my boss’ point – I don’t seem to be very good at communicating difficult messages in a way that works.
And you notice, in this example, that as your self-talk becomes more accurate, you’re more neutrally self-aware, and better able to understand and accept what you need to learn.
(Many Millennials have a hard time with this because their parents have told them they’re great at everything, so their self-talk about their current strengths and weaknesses in areas of new learning is both woefully inaccurate and somewhat “stuck.” However, this same approach to recognizing and managing their self-talk is equally effective if they buy the core premise of needing to get more neutrally self-aware.)
“Accurate self-talk frees the brain to focus on learning.” –Erika Andersen
3. Have Endless Curiosity
Endless Curiosity. It’s often the key to innovation.
It is. And it turbocharges all learning. Curiosity is built into us: if you’ve ever been around babies and small children, you’ve seen how relentlessly curious they are. Kids have an unquenchable need to understand and master their environment, and that endless curiosity propels them into learning to walk, talk, eat, play, manipulate objects (and parents) – everything they need to become fully-operational humans. Unfortunately for us, we mostly get socialized out of being curious by the time we’re teenagers, and “Whatever” and “I knew that,” replace the non-stop curious questions of childhood.
We’ve found, though, that you can re-engage that childhood curiosity, and the key – as for neutral self-awareness – lives in your self-talk. If you listen to your self-talk in areas where you’re not curious, you’ll notice that most of it is disinterested and dismissive: This is boring, I don’t care, and That’s not important. When you are curious about something, though, your self-talk about it tends to be in the form of what we’ve come to call curious questions that begin with Why…? How…? or I wonder…? If you start asking those kinds of questions in an area where you want to learn but aren’t yet curious, it will very often ignite your native curiosity, and you’ll start wanting to find the answers. And your learning will take off.
To your earlier point about innovation, asking those questions is often the beginning not only of new learning, but of new learning that breaks new ground. Throughout Be Bad First I use Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel as an example of applying the ANEW skills. When Michelangelo realized how expensive and unstable it would be to build traditional scaffolding up to the work area, 70 feet off the ground, he got curious abut what else might work instead. I imagine him asking himself, Why do we have to do it the traditional way? How else could we get ourselves up there? I wonder if we could somehow use the building itself? He ended up developing an innovative scaffolding structure that consisted of a moveable platform resting on brackets inserted into purpose-made holes in the wall. It worked so well that no worker was killed or even seriously injured during the four years it took to complete the project.
4. Be Willing to Be Bad
W is for willingness to be bad first. That’s a challenge for high-achieving, successful experts accustomed to excellence. What’s the trap of confidence?
I talked about it briefly in response to your first question. As Dan Pink pointed out in Drive, one of our core motivations is toward mastery…which is great, because it means we really love to be good at stuff. The problem is, we get so addicted to being good at stuff – feeling confident, competent, and capable – that we really don’t want to let go of that and go back to getting good at stuff. We pretty much hate going back to feeling unconfident, incompetent, incapable. But that’s where you have to go in order to start learning something new. I’ve seen this every day over the past few years with our clients in the media business, who are faced with the reality that a great deal of their expertise, hard-won over decades of experience in television, is quickly becoming obsolete. They’re having to open up to being novices in the new worlds of digital and mobile content consumption, and – for many – it’s a deeply uncomfortable experience.
“If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all.” -Michelangelo
Cultivate the Right Attitude
Is it reasonable and is it possible to cultivate an attitude that accepts being bad first?
Yes, thank goodness! And once again, it lives in our self-talk. Most often, our self-talk in those “be bad first” situations is either self-flagellating (Oh my god, I’m such an idiot – I hate that I don’t know this/can’t do this already! Everyone will think I’m a loser) or trying to blame somebody else (I can’t believe I’m expected to learn this – it’s ridiculous. Don’t they have any respect for the fact that I’ve…) Both of these internal monologues make it nearly impossible to learn: they create overwhelming mental and emotional static.
You can change this self-talk. It turns out the ideal self-talk for being bad first is a combination of accepting being not-good and believing in your ability to get good. That sounds something like this: I’m going to be bad at this to begin with – it’s inevitable; I’ve never done/tried/learned this before. AND I can get good at it over time – I’ve gotten good at lots of stuff.
When you know you’re going into a situation where you’re going to be learning something new, notice your self-talk. If it’s negative and unsupportive, substitute this more balanced, supportive self-talk.
We’ve had many clients tell us – and I’ve experienced it many times myself – that when you speak to yourself in this supportive and realistic way as you approach learning a new topic or skill, it’s calming, energizing, almost liberating. It frees your whole brain to focus on learning, so you can move from bad to good to great as quickly as possible.
Be Bad First: Get Good at Things FAST to Stay Ready for the Future