What’s one thing you are proud of?

It’s interesting how questions tend to open up your mind and give you unexpected results. If I asked you for one incident in which you were proud of yourself your brain would probably call forth a couple of those incidents. That is what also happened to me. Usually I would not say that I am particularly proud of anything that I have done. Up until now I just didn’t take the time to consciously reflect on those moments. The moment I gave this question some thought the memories started to appear in abundance. What was most surprising to me is the fact that most of those events weren’t any big achievements just small steps outside my comfort zone. The call or email I had postponed for so long, the apology for a mistake that made me feel ashamed, the courage to ask for a small favor, …

I realized that I am proud of growing, of actively taking steps to expand my comfort zone.

To illustrate this let me tell you a short story: The last half an hour of my workshop had started and I sat down with the group to get their feedback. Even though I had been feeling pretty good throughout the last two days of the workshop I was nervous now. This was the first time I had tried something new, something I had believed in for a very long time but never before had had the courage to try.

It hadn’t been the first time that I had tried something new. I love to learn new things and experiment. So no two of my workshops are the same, not even if they have the exact same title. Having been in the workshop business for over five years I have had my share of experience and usually felt quite confident about myself in this environment. But usually I had been following the rules for being a workshop leader. Which rules you might ask? Is there a handbook full of rules on how to be a workshop leader? I don’t know. Probably there is but I haven’t read it. I learned the rules the way we humans learn most things – by simply observing and adopting behavior.

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Who were the people I had watched? My school teachers, professors and other workshop leaders. Most of them did a good job teaching and most of them needed control to do so. Control? Yes, they were the ones in charge. They decided on and specified the goals, the speed and depth of what was happening. In my personal research on the neuroscience of learning and learning environments I had come to the conclusion that trust should be the better learning strategy. Why? Most of our learning happens outside of formal learning settings. Research has shown that today only ten percent of all learning actually happens in formal settings. Around twenty percent happens in conversation and up to 70 percent of our learning happens as the result of personal self-education. Even more interest should be paid to the fact that we remember far more of what we learn in the latter two learning settings.

The reason for this is easy to explain. When we learn our neuronal system is adapting to a new challenge. A challenge could be anything from a new move to a new way of thinking. The more senses and therefore neuronal pathways we use for this the faster the learning process is happening and the learning result will stay longer. Lets have a look at an example. If you wanted to learn about how to build a house from wooden blocks you could read a book about it, watch a youtube clip, get an instruction manual, talk to people who have done it, try to do it yourself in a mini model, help people build it or just start building it yourself. If you did only one of the mentioned options you will know a part of this topic. The more senses you used while doing the activity the more you will have learned. So you will learn more from the youtube clip than the book if you consciously watch and listen. You will also learn more from doing it than from just thinking about it.

To become an expert in any area you will have to do all of the above.

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Now imagine your teacher wanted you to learn about how to build a house from wooden blocks and he or she told you that you would have to learn how to do it with the manual he or she gave you. He or she then would ask you to build a model house in a specific amount of time while you were not allowed to talk to your neighbor or even look at how they are doing things. Are you there? Can you feel the pressure? What will you have learned from this experience? Many people learn that the topic is uninteresting and emotionally hazardous. Now imagine the same task but the students are given a free choice of how to conquer the topic. They have a common goal of building a model house from wooden blocks. Their strategy is wholly up to themselves. What kind of instructions do they want to use, how much time are they going to spend on each phase, how are they going to manage the model building itself, in essence every question is up to them to decide upon. Chances are their engagement will be higher and their experience a lot more fun. And positive emotions lead to “fertilizing” hormones in the brain. Those hormones help the brain build new neuronal pathways.

This makes learning easy and lasting!

Nerve cells, artwork

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So lets get back to our story. I had learned all this and I wanted to bring it to life in my workshops. I spent even more time preparing to think of ways to make such an experience possible. I identified two main factors. The first was to establish an environment of trust, openness and collaboration. The second one was to shut up and let things unfold. You might believe that the first one is more difficult and I can attest that for me this wasn’t true. I had to constrain myself multiple times from taking over again. Whenever I caught myself trying to influence the process I stopped and took myself out of the conversation again. It wasn’t easy, especially when the participants asked me indirectly or directly to take over the lead. I was exhausted. Stepping outside my comfort zone and doing almost nothing had been a lot more demanding than constantly working through a workshop. And now it was time to learn if my believe about the positive effect of giving people this new kind of learning experience would be confirmed through the participants feedback.

I took a deep breath and plunged in my feedback questions.

I could feel the knot in my stomach slowly loosen and my heart beat to settle down again while I was listening to what every one of the participants had to say. They all agreed that it had been an unusual kind of experience for them. At the beginning they reported to have felt insecure and even a little overwhelmed. Here they had been expecting to be taken by the hand and filled with information for two and a half days. Instead they were asked to do everything themselves, rise to the challenge, play, experiment, fail, be creative and have fun. Once they had adjusted to this they loved every second of it. They all agreed on the point that the environment of trust and fun had helped immensely to settle them in and be willing to face the challenge. They felt they were in it together. I was so proud. I was so grateful. I was overwhelmed with joy and gratitude! Here I had tried something that I believe in with all my heart, I had shown something of myself that I had hidden for so long and here I was shining with delight. That day, that moment I learned a big lesson myself.

If you have the courage to expand your comfort zone you will always win.

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Even if the feedback would have told me that it was horrible I would have won. I would have won an insight. I would have won a feedback on how to adjust, make it better, make it work. And even if the feedback would have given me no value I had already learned so much observing myself in the course of this workshop. So I was gifted three times: in the process, in the feedback and with the positive feeling of having succeeded.

I had succeeded in facing my own fear and overcoming it with courage as well as trust in myself, the participants and the process.

How are your experiences with trust? Do you trust yourself, the people around you and the process of life? Please feel free to share in the comments or to reach out to me personally. Thank you for taking the time to read my writing and I wish you all the best in extending your comfort zone with new experiences!

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