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Why I Should Learn to Parallel Park (Hint: It has nothing to do with actually parking)

I don’t parallel park. I was never properly taught. It wasn’t on my driver’s test. I’ve been able to manage this far into adulthood without this skill. And, really, the idea makes me uncomfortable because I am not sure I’ll ever be good at it.

And because, like all humans, I subconsciously try to avoid discomfort in order to protect myself, I have (for 26 years now) put off learning how to parallel park. I’ve procrastinated.

But, as Adam Grant shares in his recent book I, “Procrastination is not a time management problem – it’s an emotion management problem. When you procrastinate, you’re not avoiding effort. You’re avoiding the unpleasant feelings that the activity stirs up.”

Absolutely. For some people, parallel parking is this super fun challenge to see how close they can get to the curb or how tiny of a space they can make work. For me, it brings up feelings of embarrassment and inability and yuck.

I imagine Grant would have something to say about this. In fact, he basically wrote a whole chapter about it; the first chapter of Hidden Potential is called “Creatures of Discomfort: Embracing the Unbearable Awkwardness of Learning.In it, Grant discusses the power of discomfort in growth and learning (and even calls out learning styles as a myth, in part, because of their basis in staying with what is comfortable). This chapter is located in the first part of this book, focused on what he calls the “skills of character” that are key to getting better and unlocking hidden potential.

Grant shares, “Becoming a creature of discomfort can unlock hidden potential in many different types of learning. Summoning the nerve to face discomfort is a character skill – an especially important form of determination. It takes three kinds of courage: to abandon your tried-and-true methods, to put yourself in the ring before you feel ready, and to make more mistakes than others make attempts. The best way to accelerate growth is to embrace, seek, and amplify discomfort.”

Even talking about discomfort makes me feel uncomfortable. I am a creature of habit and like routine and predictability. And that is not where the learning and growth happens – that is where hidden potential stays hidden in the comfort. Abandoning the “tried-and-true” and considering what else is out there while being open to the possibility of failure is where hidden potential is revealed.

This concept has implications for how we learn as well. In discussing learning styles, Grant adds, “The way you like to learn is what makes you comfortable, but it isn’t necessarily how you learn best. Sometimes you learn even better in the mode that makes you the most uncomfortable, because you have to work harder at it.” When we stick within our comfort zones, it limits the opportunity for growth. But when we push towards discomfort, there is real potential.

For me, these concepts raise questions both as an educator (How can I encourage students to embrace discomfort? How can I safely push students into discomfort so that we maximize learning?) and as a leader (How can I, personally, embrace, seek, and amplify discomfort in the interest of growing? How can I encourage those with whom I work to do the same?)

If you’re anything like me, you’re reading this, and some of it is resonating with you…your tendency to stick to comfort…your recognition that perhaps it’s holding you back from the growth you want…and then back to how good it feels to just be comfortable.

So, how can we make discomfort a little more palatable?

Start with intent.

If you’re new to the world of discomfort, maybe start with something low-risk and low-stakes like shaking up your dinner routine (maybe you never knew you liked Indian food!) or choosing a different book to read (perhaps historical fiction isn't that bad?). Also, embracing discomfort doesn’t mean that you have to be uncomfortable all of the time in all situations. Be intentional and when, where, and where you are seeking discomfort. Choose one area or one task and reflect. Rinse and repeat.

Set expectations.

Discomfort is hard and feels a little weird. In order to be a little more comfortable with discomfort, acknowledge that and be realistic with yourself about the process. It might be scary. You might second guess yourself. You might dream of curling into a ball on your couch and never leaving. All legit. And set those expectations and guidelines for yourself so that when you have those feelings, you’re as ready as you can be. And then lean into the feelings -- especially the discomfort.

Seek a guide or partner.

One way to make discomfort a little more comfortable is to not do it alone. Whether it’s a trusted friend, a colleague that is serving as an accountability partner, or a paid coach, inviting someone into your journey can be really powerful. That other person can help push you and hold you accountable and metaphorically hold your hand during the process. Also, these people can make really good reflection partners during your journey! And, for some of us, reaching out to someone is discomfort in and of itself (bonus!).

Grant quotes the television character Ted Lasso, saying “If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.”

Ted Lass is a very wise man. And I’m sure he would have what to say about my not parallel parking…

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