Think about it. When was the last time you really felt excited? Truly engaged? Really proud of yourself?

Chances are, it was when you finally decided to break out of your comfort zone and try something new. It was when you last challenged yourself to do something different. To think differently. To be different.

What is true for life is just as true for learning. For many of us, the idea of learning is strongly associated with our childhood school days. It evokes memories of interminable hours spent gazing out the window and daydreaming of being anywhere else other than that stuffy, old classroom. It brings to mind the creeping of the clock as the monotone of some stodgy old professor drones on and on.

Learning certainly doesn’t always evoke the idea of challenge, and it isn’t always linked to excitement, either. In fact, sometimes the only time learning ever required you to break out of your comfort zone was when you tried to learn to sleep with your eyes open!

But learning — real learning at its best — is about the challenge. It is about excitement, and yes, it is most definitely about breaking out of your comfort zone. This article will show you what such challenge-based learning can mean for you, your life, and your career.

The meaning of discomfort

Let’s face it, nobody likes feeling uncomfortable. It’s human nature and instinct to avoid discomfort whenever and wherever we can. We’re conditioned from infancy to fuss and cry, to whine, whimper, and squirm until our needs are attended to and our comfort is restored. That’s why, when we’re stuck in a state of discomfort, we feel helpless. We can feel about as powerless, scared, and confused as that baby wailing for care.

When we’re adults, we usually have a lot more control over the things that give us comfort, but we can even choose to pursue discomfort when it serves our long term goals. You don’t have to be a masochist, however, to choose discomfort, especially when it comes to learning. All you really need to do is understand what the discomfort means; what it indicates.


Read more: Desirable difficulties during the learning process


When it comes to learning, discomfort is a sign that you have breached the confinement of the familiar and are outgrowing the person you once were, surpassing the old, the expected, and the controlled. You are venturing into the unknown, the as-yet unmastered, the still-to-be conquered. It is a thrilling and terrifying position to be in because it requires you to be more than you currently are. It compels you to have confidence in what you can become, and it establishes the conditions with which you will achieve that becoming.

The power of discomfort

The magic of discomfort is not the discomfiture itself. The power lies in the fact that discomfort creates the conditions for its own resolution. If you’re uncomfortable enough, for long enough, you’re going to find a solution that will get you back to your (new and improved) comfort zone.

For instance, if your goal is to learn the elusive new coding language, you’re eventually going to get sick of that objective hanging over your head. You’re either going to give up the goal, or you’re going to put the time and effort in to finally get the job done!

Harnessing the power of discomfort

Getting out of your comfort zone to support your learning is, by definition, not easy, and that’s a good thing as we’ve seen. But unless you’re just a glutton for punishment, you need to be strategic about it. There should be a purpose if you decide to choose discomfort as a learning tool. That starts with thinking about your learning goals and ensuring that your learning strategies are relevant and effective.


Read more: Successful teaching and comprehension strategies for adult learners


It’s also important to recognize the power of experiential learning. This is the kind of learning that really immerses you in the subject matter. It might include using technology including Virtual Reality or computer simulations to help you experience what you are learning in real-world conditions.

The benefits of experiential learning in training for high risk, high-pressure careers, such as live-fire simulations for military training or surgical training for young residents, is pretty obvious, but you don’t have to be a MacGyver to benefit.


Read more: Experiential learning – How it works and when to apply it


If you’re pursuing your MBA, for example, you might use experiential learning to explore and apply deeply challenging concepts or fraught situations with clients or stakeholders. The learning experience may not feel good at the moment, but if and when you confront a similar scenario in real life, you will be prepared, confident, and more able to respond effectively than you would have been had you never embraced the discomfiture of this learning experience.

The takeaway

Learning is never easy, and it shouldn’t be. If it’s easy, that means you’re not really learning at all. True learning, effective learning, inevitably means discomfort because you are breaking away from the known, the familiar, and the comfortable. But those growing pains, as much as they may hurt, are a small price to pay for becoming something better than you were before. So embrace today’s pain so that you can embrace tomorrow’s success!

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