Thirty-four years ago this month, I put my oldest daughter on a school bus for the first time. The emotions that were a part of that day come back to me every year when I see school supplies on sale, and when the first day of school comes around and I see kids congregated at the bus stop at the end of our road, I relive the experience.
You don’t forget how frightened and small your firstborn looks climbing aboard a big yellow bus that is taking her away from you. I can still see her bravely walking toward the steps in a new dress and shiny shoes, biting her lip and clutching a Flintstones lunchbox, a large name tag handpainted by her kindergarten teacher (it was tear-stained by the time she got back home) hanging from a purple wool string and flapping in the breeze.
I hid my feelings behind a camera, and when the pictures came back (we sent them away in those days) I discovered there were a dozen of the school bus pulling away that I didn’t remember taking!
It is important that we recognize how moving out of a small comfortable world into a larger unknown one expands our capabilities, and that we acknowledge the fear and sense of inadequacy which inevitably arise when we step into new learning situations.
Going off to school, whether to first grade or college, is a clearly defined rite of passage in our culture, a step in the growth and maturation process of becoming an adult.
Where we fall short as a culture is in not acknowledging the value of learning throughout our lives. Whether we are 5 or 19 or 36 or 60, it’s not easy to get on the bus, but it’s essential to our continued growth that we do.
It is important that we recognize how moving out of a small comfortable world into a larger unknown one expands our capabilities, and that we acknowledge the fear and feelings of inadequacy which inevitably arise when we step into new learning situations.
Nowadays, when I replay the scene with the school bus in my mind’s eye, I find I am tending to cast myself in the role of the one getting on the bus rather than the one standing by with the camera.
I am reflecting about the times I’ve felt like a little girl going off to a scary and wonderful place to learn.
I certainly felt that way in a tiny plane descending into the mountains surrounding Bend, Oregon, where I went a dozen plus years ago to study with Dick Bolles and a group of career counselors from all over the world.
And again a few years later in Washington, DC, in a Transition Certification program with William Bridges, where I was the only sole practitioner in a group of HR professionals from governmental agencies.
And again last year in a writing program I participated in where I realized there was no place to hide when it came time for me to read what I had written.
Each of these experiences was a “mini rite-of-passage” I consciously created for myself by seeking out the challenge of a new learning experience among people with educational and career credentials very different from my own.
With the choice to make myself a peer of very bright people, however, also came the risk of having to deal with my insecurities.
Learning something new often brings on the anxiety of feeling “dumb”, which leads me to wonder if people neglect learning in order not to have their sense of their own competence challenged.
Edie Seashore illuminated this for me in a reframing exercise in a course I took with her this summer.
Here is the exercise: make three columns on a sheet of paper. In column one, list adjectives that describe qualities you value about yourself: for example, “energetic”, “smart”, etc.
In column two, list the psychological opposite for each quality. These are the things that drive you crazy in others (and in yourself), such as “lazy”, “dumb”, etc.
In column three, “reframe” the qualities in column two. For example, acknowledge what may look like “laziness” in some people, or even in yourself, could just be an ability to “chill out”.
If feeling “dumb” is abhorrent to you, it is not surprising that you would avoid putting yourself in situations that make you feel that way.
I think this explains why so many intelligent and capable seniors resist learning computer skills.
Yet what if they were able to “reframe” feeling dumb as a necessary step in the learning process?
PERMISSION TO BE INCOMPETENT
A dear friend and innovative colleague who teaches in a leadership assessment program begins her workshops by giving each of the participants a flat rubber cutout of a shoe, a teaching aid used by kindergarten teachers to help five-year-olds learn to tie their shoelaces.
After the group has demonstrated their mastery of tying a shoe the normal way, my friend asks them to make “one little change”—repeat the exercise with their hands crossed at their wrist.
What follows is a predictable emotional response to a situation that triggers the stage of learning my friend calls “conscious incompetence.”
The people in the group start to talk about how awkward it feels, how much longer it takes, how they are not good at these types of things, how ridiculous the exercise is, etc.
These are all ways of saying, “I’m feeling scared and/or angry because you’ve made me feel dumb.”
By giving her students permission to be like scared five-year-olds and experience “conscious incompetence” as a normal, essential, and temporary part of the learning process itself, my friend also gives them:
- A greater understanding of the need to allow space for doing something wrong or less than perfectly while they are learning it.
- A deeper awareness of how important it is to support themselves and others not just at the start of new learning, but during the “practice” period as well.
- A model which provides a sense of security and makes people more willing to “get on the bus” when other learning challenges come along.