Fast Company

We Have Nothing to Fear but Fear of Learning

Could you learn more if fear didn't hold you back?

Some people believe they require fear to excel. They count on an adrenalin rush caused by wicked deadlines or overbearing colleagues (or by positive emotions) to push them forward.

Pressure can play a useful role, but stress that's powerful enough to cause fear ultimately shuts us down. Fear causes the amygdalae, regions of the brain, to release the stress chemicals cortisol and vasopressin, putting the body on alert, quickly shutting down higher-order thinking, long-term memory, and our capacity to perform.

Fear constrains performance no matter the setting. While some business leaders blame everything from unmotivated workers to outmoded training departments for lackluster productivity, fear of learning -- actually, fearing what's to be learned -- results in the greatest stagnation. When employees become uncomfortable about learning -- when fear influences how we do our jobs -- it affects the bottom line.

As a coach and educator I see five fears of learning play out: worry over others' opinions, anxiety around changing routines, panic over the possibility of failing, personal distrust around mastering a topic, and terror facing scary stuff. Each fear leads otherwise curious people to avoid exploration and to lose out on learning experiences.

Examine what you fear learning and find a way through.

Feeling Dumb

Do you fear people losing respect for you if you ask questions? Perhaps you believe you'll reveal a terrible secret: You're not as brilliant as you lead everyone to believe.

A colleague who lives near me in Virginia asked an electronics store clerk in Boston to explain how to use an iPod. Some 800 miles from home, she felt less frightened to appear dumb than she did at a local store. She confessed she was deeply uncomfortable recognizing she couldn't grasp a piece of modern life.

If fear of feeling dumb makes you uncomfortable, frame a half-empty answer with something lighthearted. "I thought I knew everything about this field. Great to know I have room to grow. Where can I learn more?" Once you shed a desire to know everything, pressure's off. You can learn from everyone.

More Work

If you expand your knowledge, do you fear people will expect you to put it to use? Learning more might mean extra work. Or it might change comfortable routines. Some people find this so unsettling that they simply stop learning.

Knowledge-transfer guru Steve Trautman (Peermentoring.com) admits he's fearful to learn about the technology in his own house, even though he worked in software for years. He fears that if he does learn about it, his genius wife (who already knows how to make repairs) might expect him to fix things once in while.

Discovery itself doesn't necessitate change. It provides us options to choose from: Do I continue working the same old way, do I want to change everything, or do I pick from what I learned to find a practice that suits me best now?

Failure retry abort

Are there daunting implications about what you yearn to learn? Perhaps your romanticized view of how things should work will be ruined if you discover more.

A gifted guy, on the leading edge of his field, resists marketing himself. He fears success might change him, unsure how he'd maintain his integrity if he became well-known. And he fears the possibility of finding out that people don't care about his work.

Marie Montessori recognized that seemingly simple activities require many steps. Rather than view the areas you fear in total, consider them as small individual parts. Start with a few small activities, a little at a time, then equilibrate, build your momentum, and overcome your fear.

Not Me

Do you fear you can't learn a subject, or maybe you can't learn enough of it? Schools often teach topics from beginning to end, leaving people with the mistaken impression we should (or could) master a full subject in the real world.

I serve on the PR committee for a small community group. A savvy interior designer has created our newsletter for years although she only knows desktop publishing basics. Certain she couldn't learn further, each month she muddled through. When we worked together on a recent newsletter, she made great strides. She recognized she didn't need to learn everything. Rather, she benefited from finding helpful resources. As she learned, she gained self-confidence to learn more.

Because of our unique learning styles and the way information is presented in schools, some of us mistakenly believe that when it comes to learning we're doomed. Not so! Out of school, we can try assorted approaches. If learning from a book bores you, try a simulation, or create for yourself a way to experience the information first-hand.

Danger Danger

Sometimes learning feels too perilous to pursue. Would identifying the creaky noise in the ceiling require you to enter a dark attic with bats? Do you always skip asking the opinion of a coworker who once berated the sweetest person in the office? Informal learning guru Jay Cross (Informal Learning), who has a policy to try almost anything once, tells me he's afraid to attempt rock climbing. He fears if he were having a wonderful time on a rock face, at some point he'd fail to find a crevice and he'd fall to his death. He doesn't want to learn enough to be able to try.

Imagined dangers can hold us back as much as real ones. The emotion center in the brain doesn't distinguish between what it remembers and what it imagines. Catastrophes you envision feel real. FEAR could be an acronym for F-fantasy, E- expectations, A-appearing, R-real. When we don't feel safe, physically or emotionally, we struggle to learn.

If you didn't fear bats or that coworker your queries might instead release brain chemicals that create anticipation, excitement, the thrill of discovery-or little reaction altogether.

Fear Forward

When you fear learning something new try these tactics:

  1. Say aloud exactly what you fear. "Bob scares me" or "What if I fail?" Daylight makes fear seem less menacing. Then remind yourself that your reaction is natural and you can choose to address it.
  2. Watch a highlight film. Visualize a mental movie staring you as a capable and competent person who knows he can endure under upsetting circumstances. Pull your clip from past experience or script it from your imagination.
  3. Walk around the block or down the hall. Physically moving forward helps you feel strong and fit to deal with the situation.
  4. Create a mantra. Say "I can handle it" to bypass the state triggering your fear.
  5. Talk about what's stopping you. Tell someone what you need to take action. Perhaps you could use a helping hand, an extra telephone call to check in, or a specific resource or referral.
  6. Adjust your reaction by unlearning it. While fears can make learning feel difficult, when we truly want to learn something it often seems effortless. Deliberate steps to unlearn our habits can open us to new ways of working.

Acknowledge fear by naming it, relate it to other experiences, recognize how a recent situation differs from past ones, and decide to try a different and new approach. When we gather our fears and then meet them, we can then work our way past them. If we do this enough, we change our feelings about our situation, and we can return to learning again.

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