Wrestling with the CoZoLo of Learning: No pain no gain?

sumoworstelaarI must admit it. I have been struggling for a while now with CoZoLo. But I’m lucky to have social media available these days. I can simply share my concerns and assistance is always available 24/7 from every conceivable corner of the world. So I’m counting on you! Oh yes, let me first explain what CoZoLo is. ‘CoZo’ stands for Comfort Zone and ‘Lo’ for Logic. My struggle involves the logic behind how one’s comfort zone is related to learning. I often hear and read about how it is necessary to go “outside the comfort zone” to learn something. Otherwise, many insist, there will be no learning at all. I even heard one learning and development lecturer from a university preaches that “real learning has to hurt”. I was even more surprised when I recently heard someone’s vision regarding talent development for the new generation at work. I will repeat it in my own words: “the generation now entering leadership positions has always lived an easy life, always had a lot of attention and positive feedback from their parents and at school. Before they take a leadership role they first have to do some very tough self-analysis”. I don’t agree with this assessment. Throughout my intensive work with a lot of young leaders I am often surprised by all the tough situations in both their work and private lives these people have experienced and survived.

Logic and Raccoons

So some say “real learning must hurt”, “for real learning you definitely need to go outside of your comfort zone”, and “for real learning the shit has to hit the fan (and YOU have to clean up the mess)”. But now let’s look at the Logic part of CoZoLo. Sure, I have had my own experiences where I learned from painful situations. I also challenge learners to stretch and experiment with behavior that feels unnatural at the start but might be more effective in the end. I have even named my company ‘Challenge Stretching Talent’! But even if learning sometimes hurts, it doesn’t mean that pain is a prerequisite fwasbeer2or learning, does it? Let’s learn something from the famous Dutch soccer player Johan Cruijff, who sometimes comes up with nice philosophic quotes. He once said, “every raccoon has a tail but not every tail has a raccoon”. I think this is also true for the relationship between pain and learning. Sometimes learning might be painful but that’s no reason to create painful situations in order to facilitate learning. I think that pain is sometimes just a side effect of learning. For me, it is an undesirable side effect, and sometimes an unavoidable inconvenience created by poor lesson design. But I’m not absolutely sure either. I strive to achieve the ‘Flow approach’ of Csikszentmihalyi, I search for Vygotsky’s ‘Zone of Proximal Development’, I like to discuss Pink’s Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose to find other learners’ ‘optimal drive’ for learning, I try to be a ‘midwife for knowledge’ as I learned from Socrates and I’m a believer in the Growth Mindset of Dweck.

But I need you to help me out and clarify this issue. What is your idea? I turn to you in person and hope you’ll post your answer as a comment. I’m asking YOU: (in alphabetical order)

Allison Michels, how does this work for social learning using platforms like Yammer?

Shlomo Ben Hur, will you discuss this topic during the new IMD Organizational Learning in Action program?

Bob Mosher, what’s your idea from this dicussion when focussing on performance support?

Chan Lee, please explain the South Korean perspective and the relationship with ‘the hungry mind’.

Charles Jennings, please shed a light on this discussion through the 70:20:10 lens and invite the members of the new 70:20:10 forum to join the discussion

Craig Taylor, I’d love to hear your opinion based on your experiences in the army. Is it possible to train without pain to prepare for life threatening situations?

Dan Pink, can you think of a combination of pain mixed with autonomy, mastery and purpose for great learning results?

Dan Pontefract, can you please comment on the discussion from your flat army perspective?

David Kelly, is there any answer to this question somewhere hidden in your magnificent cuarated backchannel resources?

David Zinger, what is your opinion from a employee engagement standpoint (and feel free to engage all participants of your great employee engagement community)

Denise Hudson Lawson, can you inform us a bit on how this works in a political environment from your work experiences at the Houses of Parliament in the UK?

Donald Clarck, where can we find the answer in your excellent blog marathon of 50 posts on learning theorists?

Donald Taylor, please share your ideas on this topic from your specific postion: you are the center of the UK L+D community.

Elke Wambacq, you’re a courageous, innovative HR expert renewing some Belgium Governmental services, please comment from that experience.

Greet Pipijn, I’m sure you’ll have some ideas from your Emotional Intelligence expertise, please tell us about it.

Hannelore Calmeyn, I’m curious about ‘the official standpoint’ of the Belgium L&D Community, can you share some thoughts as VOV Director please?

Hallely Azulay, I’m very curious about the implication on this topic when you focus on Employee Development on a Shoestring. I count on your creative ideas.

Hans de Zwart, what happens when employees apply self directed learning: will they be able to stretch enough for optimal learning?

Ira Chaleff, what are your thought on this topics in relationship to the Courageous Follower, please let me know

Jane Bozarth, what is your – always bright and sharp – Positive Deviant idea on this?

Jay Cross, how does this comfort zone stuff relate to informal learning?

Jeanne Meister, how will this theme evolve looking at all these different generations working together in the 2020 Workplace?

Karl Kapp, I have this idea that Gamification could be the oppositeway of learning where pleasure instead of pain is related to stretching the boundaries of the comfortzone, please tell us more about that

Kate Graham, what did you discover as a professional learningeventtwitterexpert and from mylearningworx?

Laura Overton, I’m so glad you research the ‘toxicating’ effect of compliance training on learning, can you please share some findings from that perspective? And is there a relationship between pain and learning when you want to grow Towards Maturity?

Lesley Price + Lisa Goldstein, you share so many great resources and did so many nice interviews with L&D pro’s at ldglobalevents, did you find any clues about the relationship between pain and learning in all these nice conversations?

Lisa Johnson, I think in your work at Barnardo’s learning is an important way to reduce suffering and pain. I’m curious about your story.

Marlo Kengen, what is your opinion as a lecturer in L&D focussed on the connection between research and the L&D bachelor curriculum of HAN University?

Martin Couzins, how are your learningpatches related to the comfortzone?

Masako Kato, could you please as an expert in international cultures give some examples how the relationship between pain and learning are experienced in different cultures. You know there are Many Truths ( a beautiful name for your company on intercultural management)

Mike Collins, please share some thoughts on this from your learning asylum

Mike Prokopeak, we like to hear your comments from the CLO magazine perspective

Niall Gavin, you’re a wise man with impressive L&D expertise but this time I prefer your opinion from your background as a professional actor (and tell us a lot about a little topic)

Nick van Dam, looking at Deloitte ‘s  new University the company invests a lot in comfort in relationship to learning. Can you as CLO please tell us more about how this fits with Deloitte’s vision on learning? And ‘don’t hesitate, feel free to promote the great work of your ‘e-learning for kids’ foundation

Nigel Paine,  I’m sure you‘ll prefer the slogan ‘No Paine, No Gain’ so what’s your always enthusiastic opinion?

Owen Ferguson, please share some thoughts from the Scottish perspective.

Paul Matthews, can we find any clues in your new book on Informal Learning at work?

Paul Rasmussen, maybe there’s an answer somewhere in your great posts?

Reader, if not mentioned in this post, this invitation is special for you: please share your thoughts and comments.

Remco Mostertman, please share some ideas from your perspective as an expert in building (HR) Communities

Steve Wheeler, what is the relationship between pain and learning with ‘e’s ?

Thomas Lang, when I attended your drumclinic in Eindhoven last year you shared so many interesting things about learning from your experience as a top drummer. What is your opinion on this topic? (watch this video)

Tom Spiglanin, you always share nice visions on learning, hope you’ll share some here.

Valery Noll, as the great curator of The Learning Explorer, what is your top story in relationship with this topic?

Wei Wang,  hope you will share some thought from your overview as ASTD’s Director International Relations and maybe from ASTD ICE 2013


Ger Driesen


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23 Responses to Wrestling with the CoZoLo of Learning: No pain no gain?

  1. In my humble opinion you can learn from failure AND success. Learning can hurt AND be enjoyable. One can learn in the comfort zone AND outside it. Every experience is a learning experience. As long as you only want to learn. And as long as you occasionally allow yourself time for reflection.
    A ‘learning’ environment and appropriate leadership can help. But those you can arrange yourself.
    I like the word ‘and’ more than ‘or’

  2. David Zinger says:

    Much learning from me starts with ignorance or now knowing, (that may or may not be painful)
    I have always liked Jean Piaget’s view of some learning coming from disequilibrium or the world not making sense. (that may or may not be painful)
    I have learned much without knowing I was even learning and I have learned by reflecting blissfully on pleasant experiences.
    We don’t have to go t a boot camp to learn and sometimes pain does not lead to learning gain, we just shut down.
    When I taught educational psychology many years ago the simplest definition we used was learning was a change resulting from experience (all experiences have the potential for change).
    That is my thought. I will think about creating a forum on the network.

  3. What is the relationship between ‘Learning with e’s’ and pain? Easy. Every one of my blog posts in born out of pain. I suffer for my art, and then it’s your turn, dear reader. It’s a kind of ontological child birth for me, and the agony is intense. Yet once the post has been ‘birthed’ the pain is transcended by the joy of seeing my posts grow, promote dialogue through comments, get retweeted, and wear out several pairs of shoes. They are also misunderstood, usually intentionally by those who wish to draw attention to themselves. It’s water off a duck’s back. No pain my detractors try to give me can ever compare with the pain of blog-birth. Watching my posts integrating into society, and seeing them ‘go forth and multiply’, keeps me going through the pain. I could have it surgically removed, but I have decided against the procedure. I’m quite attached to my blog, see. (And … relax)

    [NB: This response was composed on behalf of Steve Wheeler by one of his army of ghost writers]

  4. Clark Quinn says:

    Ger, you didn’t ask me (except generically), but my claim is that learning can, and should be ‘hard fun’. It should be a challenging but rewarding struggle. You may fail, but you should learn from it and improve, ultimately to succeed. Is playing a good computer game painful?

  5. “Ancora Imparo” Michelangelo

    “I am still learning.” loosely translated

    “We are not here to see through each other, we’re here to see each other through.” Me

    Learning was, is and forever will be part formal, informal and social. It can fill us up like osmosis fast or slow … and it can happen when we least expect it, or when we seek it out purposefully.

    What makes me a pupil and you a master differs from person to person, from situation to situation.

    Unrequited learning is for the milquetoast. Let us be orbital … let us demonstrate reciprocity in our learning and be on a level surface (flat) as a singular group of people sharing our aims, beliefs and intellect (armata) to then manifest as an unobstructed flow of commonality. (Flat Army)

  6. Masako Kato says:

    Hi Ger and other readers,

    What a great way to get “Many Truths” on the subject, Ger. Thank you for the invite.

    From cultural point of view (using the classification of Hofstede and Minkov), the concept of “No pain, no gain” would be appreciated in so called masculine and restraint culture rather in feminine and indulgence culture. The Netherlands has one of the most feminine and indulgence culture and it is no big surprise that Ger, as a proper Dutch guy, has some reservation about this notion. In masculine culture, however, it is seen as a heroic thing to suffer pain, or do anything for that matter, to achieve something. Anglo-saxon culture is certainly masculine, and many Hollywood movies follow this theme of long suffering and winning at the bitter end (e.g. boxing movie Rocky). Indulgent/restraint classification of culture is about how light or dark people see life. Is the glass half-full or empty? In indulgent culture people see life as a party and enjoying life is the norm. On the contrary in restraint culture, fulfilling duties has higher priority than having fun, and being unhappy and suffering and doing tough jobs give people pride. In this type of culture, “no pain no gain” will go down much easier than in indulgent culture. Personally I come from Japan, a very masculine and rather restraint culture, and when I was growing up, “no pain no gain” was a widely accepted mantra of parents and teachers.

    Coming back to your CoLoZo dilemma, in my view, going out of comfort zone has a lot to do with the “fear and anxiety of not knowing” rather than pure pain of hard work or of being crashed as a person by an abusive trainer or boss . And this sense of fear and anxiety has, on culture level, a lot to do with another classification of culture, so called uncertainty avoidance.

    It is the norm to take risks, fails and learn from failures and try again in low uncertainty avoidance culture. It is said that in Silicon Valley, venture capitalists will have more faith in you and tend to invest in you if you have been bankrupt once or twice than when you are the first timer, because they expect that you have learn a thing or two from your previous failure. On the other hand in high uncertainly avoidance culture, avoiding failure is the highest motivator! So, people learn in different ways in different cultures. As trainers and human development experts, we can achieve more if we take those differences into account in program design. For example, in low uncertainty avoidance culture, experiential learning is the norm, and in high uncertainty avoidance culture theoretical learning is the norm. If you want to apply experiential learning in high uncertainty avoidance culture, France. Belgium, Russia, Middle East, Latin America and so on (most of the world), you first need to educate people that failing is OK and it is a great learning opportunity, which could be totally new for them, and give some theoretical background of what you are going to do with them, rather than just get on with it.


  7. Thanks for asking me Ger. I really like this approach. With LearnPatch I am trying to do something that could ultimately fail (just like anything, I guess), so this project is by its very nature taking me out of my comfort zone. In the short time I have been working on the site I have had some successes and failures. I believe passionately in how it could work but it makes me no money (yet). I am learning a lot right now – I am figuring out how to make a publishing entity work commercially, trying to find time to give it justice when it won’t pay. It is tough. But – it has brought us – together – both face to face and virtually, it has led to an event in London which was a great success, I’ve met loads of great people. I love what I do and being out of my comfort zone is a part of that. I’m learning a lot from this, it makes me think a lot, be creative and take risks. The learning comes from figuring things out and experiencing the unknown. I’m not sure I’d put up with endless pain though!

  8. Thanks for inviting me to the discussion Ger. While I think the may indeed be some resources in my curation posts I’ve decided to respond from a more high-level aspect of curation in general as it relates to your question.

    While all learning may not involve pain (a better word is probably discomfort), real, powerful learning, probably should. I got a new DVR for the house today, and quickly learned how to program it. Did I learn? Yes. Was it discomforting? No.

    Would I consider it a growth experience? Not in the slightest.

    Powerful learning, the type of learning that results in personal growth, should involve stretching outside your comfort zone, and for most people, that’s not comfortable at all.

    So what does this have to do with curation? I think a good amount.

    Today information is everywhere, and it’s an incredible learning opportunity for those with the desire to seek out and discover new things. The problem is, not everyone has that desire. We live in a world where information is increasingly personalized, with my curations being a simple example of that. Even a Google search is customized based on your location, browsing history, and other factors.

    In a world where your digital experience is increasingly customized, with items that interest you dropped on your digital doorstep, there’s no reason to seek out information, which is a huge opportunity for discovery and growth. Eli Pariser refers to this as “The Filter Bubble” and it in many ways is a digital silo of your personal comfort zone.

    So in summary, I don’t think all learning requires the discomfort of going out of your comfort zone; but learning that result in meaningful growth does.

    Thanks for the insightful post and question. I look forward to reading the additional comments.

  9. I love the way you have targeted us to elicit a response Ger; I enjoyed your post and am enjoying all the respondees’ insightful contributions. You ask me to focus on my experience as an actor – to which I can only respond that for me, being an actor was to live in a permanent state of discomfort. In a professional career of some 12 years, I probably only worked as an actor for 4 years – and of that 4 years, maybe about 1 year’s worth was satisfying and of which I could say I was proud. At one level, the discomfort came from not knowing when and where the next job was going to come from, from having to ‘prove’ each and every time I went for a casting that I really could act, from jumping between unemployment benefit, part-time and temporary work to keep the wolf from the door, from never having enough money, etc. I learned lots from those experiences that I have carried forward into the rest of my family and working life.
    At another level, when one did get a part, there was always the discomfort of meeting a new cast, and a new director. However, that was part of the process and was known and understood – it was part of the logic. If one was lucky, one managed to stay with a particular theatre or company for a while and develop a ‘family’ who were temporarily ‘all in the same boat’.
    The final thing I want to talk about is the actual act of ‘acting’ – rehearsing and performing the piece – and what that felt like. For me, that was the whole point of being an actor. I lived for the joy of performance. And in thinking about this response, I have realised a certain irony; we talk/ed of ‘learning the lines’; that’s what we would obsessively ask each other when we were rehearsing a new piece – “Will you help me learn my lines please?” Someone once described the ‘skill’ of acting as “Learn your lines and don’t bump into the furniture”. But can I remember a single line from any play I performed in (albeit over 25 years ago)? Not a single word. I didn’t ‘learn’ anything – I remembered them only for as long as I needed to, and have long since forgotten them. A bit like traditional schooling and sitting exams, no?
    But, having done that and rehearsed and rehearsed everything, one then had to be able to go out on stage, in front of an audience, and remember everything – lines, moves, entrances, exits, positions, props etc. with no safety net. I never lost – and I doubt any professional actor ever has – the fear before walking out on first and subsequent nights. It is the most uncomfortable feeling in the world, and yet we kept/keep coming back for more.
    Any actor, speaker or trainer should value this discomfort as a safety/sanity check. The DisCoZoLo is our friend.

  10. Elke Wambacq says:

    Thank you for this very interesting blog! Does learning cause some pain? For my experience it depends in what context you are learning. When you try to change government for example, it causes a lot of pain. You are swimming against the stream and trying to change a structure that is very harsh and fixed. You risk in a matter of speaking your life by wrestling with old dinosaur cultures. If you don’t want to die in this adventure you have to learn to navigate in a world that doesn’t fit you. You have to learn the language and the habits of actual leadership in order to be able to change it from the inside. But if you miss a step, it might be your last. Learning goes quite fast in this process. I can compare it with swimming in the Amazone river: looks peaceful, but underneath piranha’s and crocodiles are ready to bite. The only thing that softens the pain in this learning process is your safe network. Being able to talk about the challenges and think twice about every step you make. Learning and innovation sometimes is conflicting with each other. If I learn well in government, I will be an excellent civil servant from 9 to 5 following bureaucracy. If I innovate in government I will learn bad as a bureaucrate, but might do a much better service for the client. Learning causes pain of you do it against the system.

  11. Hi Ger, great to be involved. My ‘pain’ actually came from being IN my comfort zone rather than out of it. The pain of knowing there was another way to approach corporate learning and not being able to make the changes I so desperately wanted to make. 10 years in a large corporate organisation with the last 4 years campaigning to escape the mad house of corporate learning caused enough pain. I could have stayed on a relatively cushy number and become more frustrated and bored with the lack of action but this didn’t feel right for me. I was eager to expand my horizons and to stop the rot of institutionalism and ultimately escape my comfort zone. Since joining http://www.dpgplc.co.uk/ I’ve been out of my comfort zone every day and doing things that excite me and capture my interests and passions. This is how I learn, it’s not painful but the ability to approach new experiences with an open mind and a recognition that things won’t always go to plan is key. I crave adventure and whilst I’ve escaped the mad house I’m still working in the asylum 🙂

  12. I like Martin’s comment “…The learning comes from figuring things out and experiencing the unknown.” I don’t think there is any direct relationship between learning and pain. (i.e IF ‘pain’ THEN = ‘Learning’) Some experiences, such as navigating a dreadfully designed system can be very painful and involve zero learning (Other than to find ways to avoid said system.) while trying new things and learning can be quite enjoyable. That being said, I think when we experience the pain that should be a signal to look even closer for things to learn so that we can avoid or eliminate it in the future.

    Also, I don’t think being out of your comfort zone must always equate to “pain”. I don’t mind venturing out of my comfort zone but I’d rather avoid the painful part if possible.

  13. Marlo Kengen says:

    To me, pain is no requirement for learning. In my experience with HRD students, from fresh year students to experienced professionals, I notice that when pain dominates the learning process people become insecure, doubtful and risk-averse. Not a good start for learning in my opinion. For learning new things or for development within your comfort zone, I do believe in some form of excitement. Excitement may be joyful, full of professional curiosity. It may also include some degree of tension. This is probably the discomfort Niall Gavin writes about in his response to your blog.

    This made me think of different intensities in pain. Let’s compare it with my muscle aches after ballet class. There is this slightly annoying muscle ache reminding me for a couple of day of the muscles I used intensively in class (or make me aware that I hadn’t been using them for some time ;-). To me, this is more effective than the serious muscle aches that prevent me from functioning and moving normally for days. On other words: stretching the muscle yes, straining the muscle no.

    Crucial in all this is that the learner has an inner ‘knowing’ that the new job or task can be learned and done. To me, this self-efficacy is a key concept when facilitating learners to stretch and to experiment.

    Ger, thanks for inviting me in this discussion. Your simple question made me think – and through that – learn. You made me quit my emails, lesson preparations and assessments. I had to get aware of my thoughts on this topic. Any pain involved? No. Good learning experience? Definitely yes.

  14. Hi Ger – a great question and a great way to elicit responses. And what a wide variety there have been!

    My take is this: not all learning is the same. Some learning takes place through a painful activity, some generates pain, and other learning is neutral and un-noticed, and some is joyful and pleasurable.

    I very much like the CoZoLo idea. In many cases getting out of one’s comfort zone produces learning. In this case the pain is co-incidental and is more related to a person’s moving out of their CoZoLo than about the learning itself. In this case the learning takes place through an activity that may or may not be painful, depending on how comfortably people are with change. (And to my mind, the success of future organisations will depend on hiring resilient individuals comfortable with a high rate of change.)

    Some learning, though, can generate pain – but not as much as some might like to think. Learning a foreign language can, for example, be a difficult slog, or a pleasant experience. It depends on how you approach it. Michel Thomas’s great contribution to language learning was to assure his students that if they had any difficulty it was entirely his fault. They were to relax and enjoy the experience (and guess what – in doing so, they learnt much faster). Here, the role of the L&D professional must be to understand how individuals learn and supporting them in this. This is one of the most important changes for the profession: to move from subject matter experts to learning experts.

    A lot of learning goes on unnoticed. We simply pick things up. It would be ideal if, as L&D professionals, we could build more of this into daily work flows – and indeed we can, if we support the natural ways that people learn, though social interaction and sharing. (Whether technology supported or not).

    Finally, learning can of course sometimes be a joyful experience. Joyful, because it’s a delight to understand something, to have that ah-ha moment. Unfortunately schooling for tests builds a mentality that works against this, and I think that workplace L&D has an obligation to put some of the fun back into learning.

    However, let’s be honest, some of the greatest joy comes when you learn something after a battle, when it is the solution to a problem you’ve long been striving for … in other words, after you’ve overcome some pain. At that point the pain ceases and the pride in achievement sets in. You’ve broadened your understanding of the world.

    Perhaps the learning-pain conundrum is best expressed thus: sometimes we learn best when we expand the boundaries of our CoLoZo.

  15. ldgecalendar says:

    Ger, You’ve create quite the social learning experience! This is fun for me both as a spectator and a participant. I think I’ll make it a point to come back occasionally to watch the conversation grow.

    Everyone has a flavor of a brilliant response here, lots of good points that resonate with me including Clark Quinn’s points about good computer games and David Kelly’s point about pain needed for meaningful growth. And what an interesting idea from Masako Kato about male and female cultures – that certainly makes sense.

    You asked me to include my ideas in relation to my experiences with interviews of L&D professionals on http://www.LDGlobalEvents.com where I’ve focused on trying to understand the real human journey of how one makes it from birth into our profession. After ~50 official interviews and countless unofficial ones, I’ve never encountered anyone in our field who said they knew as a small child that this field was for them. I’m sure that breed of L&D / T&D professional exists; I just have not encountered them. It seems most of us who have arrived here AND decided to stay, traveled here through personal emotional exploration, frustrating trial and error, ego-boosting promotions, and exciting opportunity challenges to tackle.

    Dan Pontefract’s quote, “We are not here to see through each other, we’re here to see each other through.” is one that I think I will always remember because it is one I agree with and I find it brilliantly articulated. I feel excitement and energy about it. So I did the natural thing, I tweeted it. Giving you credit of course, Dan. To me this quote is impactful, memorable, and I am grateful to have learned from it in a way that is meaningful to me. But, I don’t think I’ve felt any pain even up to the point of writing this (unless I somehow missed the pain – but if I missed it then it couldn’t really be pain, correct?) I did however feel a spike in a positive, energized feeling that has flowed through my rapidly typing fingers. So, maybe the answer is not that pain is needed… but any emotion(?) that sparks exceptional brain activity. And my mind certainly took that idea for a spin. I thought of many applications of that quote/idea I have witnessed and experienced, including my late father who used to scold me when I was a stubborn teenager who didn’t take his advice. He often asked me why I insisted on learning the hard way. But, I think Dan understands why.

    So, while I’m unsure if pain is the answer…I think it would be an interesting research project to see how any heightened emotions and brain activity influence learning. Like Clark said, is playing a good computer game actually painful? Maybe it’s just exciting…

  16. Ger
    Sometimes adjusting behaviour can be unsettling, especially when it takes one out of one’s ‘comfort zone’ and challenges our set ways of thinking.

    Albert Einstein famously struggled with quantum mechanics even though it was triggered by his own work. His often-quoted and generally misunderstood ‘God doesn’t play dice’ statement was about the challenge this apparent randomness of nature presented (there’s a good article by Stephen Hawking about that here http://www.hawking.org.uk/does-god-play-dice.html). Einstein found quantum theory proposed a universe his classical learning and view couldn’t reconcile.

    Despite being a marvellously creative thinker Einstein never changed his thinking to accept the quantum view. He never ‘learned’ quantum mechanics. If Einstein had lived to read Belfast-born John Bell’s theorem it’s accepted that he would have done so, but Bell did his work after Einstein died.

    What does this tell us about about learning? I think the message here is that ‘real’ learning involves modification of our world view and our behaviours. The ‘real’ learning that matters can only be assessed through observing changes in behaviour that result from that learning, whether that’s a child learning to talk or a senior executive learning to better do her job. This is sometimes difficult for L+D professionals to acknowledge and adapt to – especially those that are wedded to the pre-test/post-test approach.

    Where does 70:20:10 thinking fit in? This model works on the basis that the majority of learning is experiential, and experiential learning sometimes comes with ‘pain’ – getting it wrong and then reflecting so it you get it right next time, tough assignments that keep you awake at night but teach you lots, losing out on a promotion or a deal and being spurred on to win the next one. However, there’s lots of exhilarating, enjoyable experiences from which we all learn too.

    The 70:20:10 model (certainly as I recommend it’s deployed) also focuses on ‘learning with, and from, others’ – through social learning, feedback, coaching and mentoring, building networks and other activities working and learning with others. Again, some of this can be painful (who hasn’t had some ‘difficult feedback’ that has led to changes in behaviour/performance?) but often pleasurable (what’s better than collaborating, co-operating and learning with others?)

    The ’10’ in 70:20:10? Who hasn’t had a truly awful and painful eLearning or classroom experience? Then again, who hasn’t had an inspiring teacher or lecturer (or maybe even engaged with a truly wonderful piece of eLearning :)).

    That’s the practical aspect. The fundamental issue you’re addressing, I think, is whether pain or discomfort, or a relaxed state of happiness, is the better precursor. Certainly research into early childhood learning seems to indicate that happiness and effective learning are linked. That would suggest discomfort and ‘pain’ are more likely to inhibit. However it’s dangerous to draw conclusions for adult learning contexts on the basis of experiments with children.


  17. Ger, happy to offer a few thoughts on your post. One of the challenges of writing after the great thoughts of so many others is offering something of additional value. Not sure I’ll succeed, but here it is.

    Donald Taylor wrote, “A lot of learning goes on unnoticed.” This is true, and I think profound learning, whether from a painful experience or an exhilarating one, requires genuine and deliberate reflection. I think painful experiences begin with reflection on what went wrong, so it’s easy to conclude that pain (or discomfort as David Kelly wrote) is required for profound learning. But disciplined reflection on routine, daily learning can also lead to profound learning, IF it’s then synthesized into new ideas and put into some form of practice–changed behavior, new endeavors, new experiments, etc. This is certainly what I’m doing now in the aftermath of the ASTD International Conference and Expo, a truly exhilarating experience mostly through conversations with creative smart people. I now need to reflect on my experiences, write about them, and put new ideas into action in my workplace.

    I DO think you need to get out of your comfort zone by doing new and innovative things, put what’s learned into practice for profound learning to occur. Some will fail, some will succeed, but this all falls squarely into Charles Jennings’ 70% of experiential learning.

    I always wondered why I naturally resonate with Mike Collins. His comment, “I crave adventure and whilst I’ve escaped the mad house I’m still working in the asylum” sums it up. I love to be outside my comfort zone and feel lost when I’m inside it. But as three others (including Mr. Jennings) point out, reflection is important – and to me that’s a key enabler to getting “safely” outside my CoZo in a Lo kind of way.

  18. Jane Bozarth says:

    Ger asked me for my “positive deviant” response to this and, serendipity being what it is, I happened to have an answer ready.

    I had a “lightbulb” moment at Learning Solutions 2013. Several conference attendees were gathered in a corner of the hotel bar participating in a live #lrnchat session when Nick Floro joined us. Somewhere in the conversation he mentioned that he had been “working on learning to” sketch and felt he’d gotten better at it. Truthfully, I was stunned. I have no artistic ability –zero — and always assumed that the ability to draw depended largely on an innate talent. I believed it was something you could improve in but were born with, and I did not think you could build nothing into something.

    I was wrong. I love the idea of sketchnoting and am in awe of things like Common Craft and RSA-style videos. So, after hearing that from Nick, I set out on a determined course to teach myself to sketch. I started with Mike Rohde’s book and the sketchnoting sites, and googled “how to draw _____ (cars, planes, ants, whatever) and quickly found that yes, i could draw a little bit. (Some here might remember the day I was trapped in LMS training so spent the day learning to draw goats, documenting evidence of my progress on Twitter.) I’m no Kevin Thorn but I’m better, and I feel more confident, and I’m encouraged enough about it to keep working on it. I’m pretty good at basics like critters and furniture. I’m WAY better at things with depth, like boxes. (A rule: you have to draw it 50 times to make it your own.) And I am intentionally working on building up my visual dictionary to include not just concrete images but thinking of ways to represent concepts like jealousy. And I find, not surprisingly, that this is starting to affect what I pay attention to and what I listen for.

    So what does the positive deviant do? In this case, realizes when a skill assumed to be a “gift” can perhaps be learned after all — and then learns it.

  19. Ger, what a delightful way to get interesting responses to your thoughtful question. Thank you for including me on the list of such distinguished people. I enjoyed reading the other comments and look forward to those that will follow.

    In my book, Employee Development on a Shoestring, I wrote about this issue in an attempt to encourage employee developers to move beyond the comfort zone but to warn them against going too far outside it. I think that there are three types of learning and/or performance environments: the ‘comfort’ zone, the ‘stretch’ zone, and the ‘panic’ zone.

    Learners in the comfort zone are fully performing in their role and experience “unconscious competence” and mastery. Their work doesn’t create a great deal of challenge nor requires that they exert a great effort. They may learn a bit, but they’re not really growing significantly. Just beyond the comfort zone is the stretch zone – the learning zone – where employees can move past what they know and do well and focus energy on building new skills and learning new tasks or requirements. They are doing new things that they find tough yet manageable. I think that the word David Kelly use – discomfort – is a better description of this experience than ‘pain’. But if we push learners too far beyond their capacity, they will become anxious, confused, and discouraged by too many unknown and unpracticed variables. This is the panic zone – it’s uncomfortable for learners and should be avoided. I think this is what you refer to as ‘pain’.

    Can we can learn in the panic/pain zone? Sure, but it’s not sustainable. It’s similar to exercising to grow stronger: We exert ourselves and actually create microscopic tears in our muscles that then heal and the muscles grow stronger. But if we push too hard, we create potentially devastating muscle tears that will take us out of the gym for a long period of recovery – unhealthy muscle damage that may even cause us to reverse our progress. Same with learning: we can push learners to exert themselves within a manageable, narrow extent to grow new skills and knowledge. And if we push learners into the panic or pain zone, too far and/or for too long, we risk causing the learners to recoil from the experience, give up, or feel repelled by the seemingly insurmountable learning challenge.

    I was glad to see you mentioned Csikszentmihalyi’s flow model because he describes this well by noting the intersection of our levels of perceived challenge as they intersect with levels of perceived skillfulness. In the great graph he created to illustrate this concept (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flow_(psychology) ), Csikszentmihalyi shows how we can easily shift from a positive experience of arousal to an experience of anxiety when the challenge is great but our skill level is not sufficiently high. On the flip side, if the challenge is too low, we risk boredom or even apathy. So, in short: stretch-induced discomfort is good for learning. Pain, less so.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to weigh in!

  20. Thank you all for your very interesting comments and wonderful to get a picuture from aal these perspectives. I hope some more ideas will follow. My idea is to curate all the comments and write a kind of overview this summer.
    Today I ran into this article http://bigthink.com/ideafeed/why-we-sometimes-prefer-more-pain-to-less?utm_source=Daily+Ideafeed+Newsletter&utm_campaign=3ee4a690be-Daily_Ideafeed_May_26_20135_26_2013&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_625217e121-3ee4a690be-38530621 about the ‘Peak-End rule’ by Daniel Kahneman (a.o.). It indicates that people tend to prefer larger quantities of pain if the experience finishes with a slight decrease in pain, as opposed to a shorter experience of pain which remains constant throughout. It sound familiar with some of your comments. Bye, Ger.

  21. Nigel Paine says:

    Ger thanks for the post and apologies for the interminable time it has taken for this reply. Things mull over in my head and then explode onto the page. I have tried hard to add something to an already rich debate. The advantage of the early responder is that the field is quite open!

    One of my biggest bug-bears with Happy Sheets is the pre-ordained assumption that being ‘happy’, in the immediate aftermath of a learning event, is somehow the highest aim and achievement of a learning experience. This assumption has somehow got twisted up into ideas about motivation, enjoyment and having ‘fun’. What we have to do is separate all this out and your post has begun to do that very well. Thanks for doing all this and getting a great little debate going. It made me pause to think and it has probably done the same for the hundreds (yea thousands!) who have read the Blog but not replied. So you have loosed an idea into the community and it will run on and on past the natural shelf-life of the blog.

    Here are four points that I would like to make:
    1. Great learning moves you on in some way. Sometimes this is a consolidation and an extension of what you already know/do. That leap is not painful at all; more reassuring and life enhancing .

    2. Sometimes it is a challenge and a fundamental challenge to what you believe and you need to reconsider and modify your behaviour. This can be painful and slow, but nevertheless, inexorable. And the reflection on the journey is always interesting and worthwhile.

    3. Occasionally shock treatment needs to be applied: i.e. a crisis or a massive failure of some sort needs to be addressed. The whole experience is painful but the critical point is that you learn and learn fast. At this juncture you need and want to understand and move forward. You are open to a big shift and need some kind of forward movement. So learning actually tempers the disquiet.

    4. There are odd times when the learning breaks into your comfort zone and hits you between the eyes. All the things that you thought were true or the behaviours you thought were appropriate are challenged and you are made to confront the old with the new. This can be extremely uncomfortable at the time and almost epiphanic as you reflect.

    What I think is critical, is not the degree of discomfort but one’s openness to change. So the discomfort is mitigated by the process of learning or not, as the case may be.

    Getting out of your comfort zones is important now for individuals, and for organisations. That is why we bang on about diversity, contrary views, and the need for challenge. So the debate is not: is good learning uncomfortable, rather how can learning make sense of contradiction and challenge of which discomfort can be a part.

    Donal Carroll in “Managing Value in Organisations” quotes the CEO David Varley’s 3 cardinal sins of leadership: “being blind, being blind to being blind, and making that subject undiscussable.” In other words survival is not about trying harder, but learning harder.

    One of the best development exercises can be a stretch assignment which, by definition, is uncomfortable but not impossible. In that small elision between the two states is a frantic learning process.

    So bring on discomfort. And don’t get learning mixed up in trying to provide certainty. That is not part of our world now and learning has to exploit that not try to hide that.

  22. Hi Ger, a perspective from down under …
    I think the necessity for pain lies not in the learning experience, but is a part of what drives us to learn in the first place. Pink’s idea of mastery as a driver is grounded in the “pain” of desiring skill/knowledge but not yet having them. David Zinger mentioned “Jean Piaget’s view of some learning coming from disequilibrium or the world not making sense” and his (Piaget’s) protege Robert Kegan spent much time considering the transitions between stages of development and similarly concluded that it is this “pain” of one’s current state being inadequate that begins to move people towards learning.
    The painfulness of learning doesn’t come from the design of the learning experience but the attitude/motivation of the learner. The toughest boot camp can still be enjoyable, the most creatively, engagingly designed eLearning can still be a drag. The variable in both these extremes (and between them) is the learner motivation.
    I’ve been learning German for a few years now. It’s hard! But not in the sense that it requires difficulty for me to learn. Yes, the learning process takes me beyond what I currently know (I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it. Pablo Picasso), into that proximal development zone but that’s not painful as I’m choosing to go there (and by choosing, I’m moving into flow).
    In one sense, the role of L&D is to both create and watch out for that pain of the inadequate current state (the UnCoZo!) and design learning ecosystems that allow and facilitate people to learn their way out of that state.

  23. Pingback: You can stimulate curiosity for self directed learning | APT

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