On the Learning Curve: Or "Ouch, I learned"

Here’s the truth: learning can sometimes be really painful.

It means change. It means accepting that there are things you don’t know.  It means stepping out of your comfort zone.  Fortunately, the good ol’ internets are ready and willing to help you:

Sample Title:  5 ways to Fix Everything Wrong with You!
(You won’t BELIEVE #4…….)

1:  Step Out of Your Comfort Zone! (right. cool.)
2:  Get up Early (to which I usually say “uh, no thanks”)
3:  Be in the MOMENT (okay! I’ll get right on that.)
4:  Think Positive.  (So it's a good thing if I feel like I want to implode?)
5:  Avoid procrastination.  (Um . . . . maybe later.)

The mighty selection of literature devoted to growth makes stepping out of your comfort zone seem Easy like Sunday Morning.  But in fact, it can make your body, mind, and spirit unite into one big old “YOU SHALL NOT PASS” rebellion of resistance.

While we may eventually be glad to have learned new things, at first our response sometimes looks more like a bumper sticker I once saw:  "Oh no, not another learning experience."

Of course, this makes total sense in a self-protective way. We get used to certain “givens" in our world -- the way we move, speak, see, dress and touch are among the very few things we take for granted.  And taking things for granted is not a bad thing -- it’s an evolutionary necessity in our day-to-day lives to file and block together the massive amount of information we take in everyday.  But in order to learn, we need to break apart those blocks to give us room for new information.

If you’ve ever traveled abroad, you know part of what’s exhausting--but also exhilarating--is finding yourself away from any recognizable mirror of who you are.  Everything from planning your day to buying tampons requires conscious thought.  People look at us in a certain way, and we don’t know why.  We can’t take for granted that we know how to get our basic needs met, let alone determine if in this environment we are charming--or quiet--or lewd--or articulate.  We must discover that and find our footing in a new normal.  How do we make that happen?

Voice training is one more "new learning".  It's a whole set of new skills which includes breaking physical patterns of tension and freeing the breath: two pretty fundamental Givens of how we interact with the world.  And let's face it, that can be recipe for some discomfort.   And even when we know the results and rewards are exactly what we’re looking for- that whole “comfort zone” thing fights us.  Even the most eager and enthusiastic student can get caught in the Pit of Despair in this process.

So, what exactly is going on, and how do you fight the good fight against it?

Here’s a little road map: via Abraham Maslow’s “The Stages of Competence".  For all of you who took Psych 101 in college, this is the dude that also brought us his “Hierarchy of Needs”.   Grab a cocktail and settle in.  I promise this will hurt less than your 9 am class used to.

The Four Stages of Competence-

Originally by Abraham Maslow, interpreted by Julie Fogh
(Special Guest appearances by Eddie Murphy, Patrick Swayze, and some piano playing cats)

1) Unconscious Incompetence:  aka “Ignorance is Bliss.”  This is the stage where you don’t know what you don’t know yet.  Since you don’t know what it would actually take, you imagine you could do anything. The Land of False Confidence. Not much to say here except that this is a really comfy place to hang out.

2) Conscious Incompetence: aka “The WTF? Stage.”   You now have a more of a sense of what you don’t know, and you don’t yet know how to fix it.  This stage can be incredibly frustrating.  Often, people just stop here, and let it haunt them like this Patrick Swayze in Ghost.

Because it sucks so much, sometimes we want to just turn on our heels and run. After all, if there is discomfort in the process, it must be that you’re doing it wrong, right? (Or that you WILL NEVER SUCCEED.) It’s messy.  And the truth is it has to be messy.  This is the phase where it’s most important to have someone to check in with on a regular basis, because your resistance to change is gonna put on its best James Bond tuxedo and try to get you to go back.   Say no, Moneypenny.

(Sidenote: One of the truest testaments to human imagination is in the number of ways we can come up with to justify quitting:  ranging from the inner toddler “I don’t want to” hissy fit to sophisticated diatribes that leave you feeling like a better, more evolved human being if you just quit.)

Let’s revisit that traveling abroad metaphor for a moment--in this phase, you don’t have a context yet because you’re stepping into a new normal.

This is also the phase where my students most often fixate on wanting me to tell them if they’re “good” or "bad."  My honest answer is usually: “Not yet”.  This is really not what they want to hear, but as their teacher, I am truly not concerned by “bad” work in this stage. I know if they continue engaging, practicing and moving forward THEY WILL be good. Sometimes you need a teacher who can see the whole forest when you are stuck in the trees- who can see the Montage Sequence your work is becoming.

My best advice in this stage is to keep your curiosity.  Keep engaging. Stay on the path.

3) Conscious Competence – AKA, “The Lightbulb Phase”:  You’ve Got This and You Want the World to Know.

It feels like a reward for all the discomfort of phase 2 to show everyone what you’ve learned.  "Look ma!"

In acting, this stage can be complicated because of its false sense of security.  You might be able to bullet point everything you do, and there's nothing wrong with it that you can pinpoint- but you still might not get to what’s underneath what you are learning, or for that matter, why you started learning this in the first place.  This is also a stage where people get stuck, because it feels so good.  In order to be great, though, you gotta move on to the next step.  The enemy of the great is not only the perfect, it’s also the good enough.

4) Unconscious Competence (Trumpet!  We’re here!):  aka “I Own This Shit/FLOW/Trusting Your instincts/Letting it All Go”

This is when you develop pure confidence—true confidence.  When you can, as the Zen Masters say, “let the arrow shoot itself.”  The new skill is enough a part of you that you can let the shit go, improvise, and make it look easy.  You’ve earned it going through the pain of stage two and the false glory of stage three.

Here is where you gain real tangible benefits from all your practice, and your habits and preparation are solid. In new situations, you may still find yourself back in stage 2- but you are no longer intimidated by it (much).

My job as a teacher/coach is about teaching the skills of voice, but also cheerleading - getting you through the stages. I see a bigger picture when I'm teaching.   I’m placing just enough lights on the path that you don’t feel entirely lost for long- while holding space for you to find your own way.   Especially with voice work, getting comfortable with the discomfort is a HUGE part of the process. I can help ease, but not eliminate that discomfort.  Mastery, I sometimes think across the board, is the combination of curiosity and the skill of just plain learning to fail.  Simple ingredients, profound results.

The great thing is, by leading you through the whole process, you probably won’t need me anymore--and often in a far shorter time than you may realize.  You will be empowered to figure it out on your own.  The discomfort will be totally worth it.  So get to it!

Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child volunteers to demonstrates stages 1 and 2:

Julie Fogh