If you don’t put yourself into new situations, you’ll never learn or grow. That much is obvious. Getting outside your comfort zone can be, well, uncomfortable. That much is equally obvious. But how to actually overcome the feelings that prevent us from having those new experiences is much less clear. If the problem is in our heads, however, the solution is there too.
One of the reasons for the awkwardness, reluctance, and stress many of us feel in unfamiliar contexts is the mind-set we bring to them from the get-go. Carol Dweck, Heidi Grant Halvorson, and other researchers have shown that our in-going mind-set has a huge impact not only in how we anticipate and experience new situations, but also in what we say and do–and, unfortunately, what we don’t say and do.
Simply put, we often tend to focus more on performing than on learning. As Halvorson puts it, we focus more on “being good” than on “getting better.”
The problem with a performance-oriented mind-set is that we come to see and approach new situations as if they’re make-or-break trials of our natural skills and abilities. Instead of approaching new situations as opportunities to learn new things and meet new people, we go in with the (often unconscious) belief that we’re being tested.
It’s as though we’re walking on stage for the first round of American Idol. We try to be the best and smartest person in the room, all while being polite and self-effacing. We focus on proving ourselves and avoiding mistakes. We see others as evaluators or fellow competitors instead of collaborators. We strive to be the person we think others want us to be, instead of just being ourselves.
And when we do all that, of course, we’re just about doomed.
If that describes you, it isn’t entirely your fault. We’ve partly inherited this performance-based mind-set from our ancestors. For most of human history, our survival and reproductive success was largely based on our performance–how well we could hunt, gather food, and fight. In a world of limited resources, we competed within our groups for status in order to gain and maintain access to food, shelter, and mates. And our brains evolved accordingly.
In the rare instances when we tried to join a new group, our primary focus was in establishing ourselves towards the top of the group’s hierarchy as quickly as possible, which was usually determined by how well we initially performed. Today, we’re still hardwired with many of these same instincts, which lead us to fear failure, low status, and rejection, and do anything in our power to prevent it.
Unfortunately, many of our educational systems reinforce those very instincts. In school, we quickly learn that our grades are based on how we perform in class and on exams, assignments, and presentations. Later, we discover our college application success depends on a battery of standardized tests, essays, and how much additional “performing” we do on sports teams or in student clubs, music groups, and other extracurriculars.
Schools are ostensibly institutions of learning, but we tend to graduate from them predisposed to worry about performing first, learning second.
Fortunately, there’s a better way. A simple shift in mind-set towards seeing new situations as learning opportunities rather than performance tests can make a big difference. On a practical level, a a learning-oriented mind-set:
1. Gives you more energy and enthusiasm. Seeing new situations as interesting challenges with the opportunity for discovery can give you more incentive and desire to put yourself out there.
2. Stifles performance anxiety. If you’re focused on learning from others, not competing with them, you’ll simply have fewer mental resources to devote to worrying about how you’re doing.
3. Helps reframe missteps part of the learning process. You’ll stress over them less if you see your mistakes as helpful feedback to help you adjust and do better, not tell-tale signs of your less-than-exemplary abilities.
4. Keeps you open to new possibilities. If learning is your main goal, you’re more likely to recognize and take advantage of surprises, unexpected connections, and new opportunities. After all, the point of having new experiences in the first place is to gain new ideas and make new relationships.
5. Makes a great first impression. Approaching new people as those you can learn from causes you to ask questions and listen more intently, which shows deference, respect, and humility. Those are far better traits when it comes to making a good first impression than the ones you’re likely to display when you’re concerned about showing off your chops.
So how can you approach new situations with a learning mind-set? Here are four steps you can take:
1. Define what you want to learn from the situation before you enter it. You’ll need to deliberately shift focus from performing to learning right from the get-go. Learning how to set the stage this way can take some practice, but it can also give you some direction on whom to approach and what to say once you’re in the thick of things.
2. Write a recap afterward. If it helps, pretend you’re a journalist or sociologist gathering information from in the field. It’ll give you a more focused purpose for navigating the unfamiliar situation, help you ask better questions, and keep your attention fixed on what others are saying. Once you’ve written down what you’ve learned, you’ve captured it forever. Then go back and review those notes before you meet someone again in order to make a great second impression and keep developing those relationships.
3. Evaluate your progress. If you aren’t learning, move on to new people or try new questions. Make sure you’re getting the most out of whatever situation you place yourself in. Sometimes you’ll discover you’re learning something completely unexpected. At any rate, remain open to adjusting your learning goals so you can take best advantage of the opportunity.
4. Relax and have fun. So much of our lives are already about performing well and being productive. Give yourself a break from that. Remember that our brains have evolved to see new situations as far more risky than they are these days. Even if things don’t go as well as you hoped, the outcome is rarely fatal, and one of the nice things about our crowded, dynamic world is that there are always other people, groups, and opportunities to pursue.
Keith Rollag is the author of What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations. He is associate professor and chair of the management division at Babson College.