The Discomfort of Learning

My 7 year old son has been learning how to ride a 2 wheel bike. Over the past several weeks his attitude has shifted from excitement to intimidation to frustration to despondence and back again. He got in a bad mood when we suggested practicing, blamed the bike for malfunctioning, and claimed a slightly skinned knee prevented him from any further effort. At one point he screamed, “I quit!”, which prompted our older neighbor (rocking on her porch swing) to call out, “No, Eli, never give up! You’ll get it!”.

Of course, he learned how to ride a bike. There was a breakthrough moment when he felt the balance, and another when he realized dad had let go for over 10 feet without telling him. But getting there was not easy, simple, or predictable. Building the skills he needed did not happen in a linear progression, and he did not get any positive feedback on his progress for 85% of the learning curve. Ultimately, he learned how to feel his body and feel the bike, and let go of trying to over-think the endeavor. Now he’s tearing down dirt paths.

It’s not so different learning to be a networked, social media savvy nonprofit. Sometimes you try and try and nothing happens. Sometimes you skin your knees a bit, or get frustrated with the equipment, or feel like you don’t even want to practice anymore. In the Avi Chai Academy, the Jewish Day Schools have just completed a 3 week match campaign through Facebook Causes. Everyone struggled, everyone learned. Some had their breakthrough moment, and others did not. So they’ll keep practicing and soon they’ll find their balance just like Eli eventually did on his bike. And when they do, they’ll recognize all sorts of other possibilities now available to them, like mountain biking, and renting bikes on vacation, and entering a triathlon with a friend.

Learning new things is not comfortable. We’ve all had plenty of practice studying for tests or memorizing facts, but not all learning happens in this bookish-academic-structured way. Sometimes learning is more fluid — it’s about developing instincts, or rewriting the rules of engagement or the patterns of working that we’re used to. Social media is not a memorizing-the-facts sort of learning. It’s more like the feeling the balance of the bike and understanding your center of gravity and the power of shifting your weight sort of learning.

And as my son can tell you, you can expect to crash and burn at least a hundred times before you have your first ah-ha moment. And that ah-ha moment is just the beginning, it’s not the end. It’s just that little burst of confidence that you need to persevere to the next stage of learning.

More important than actually learning how to ride a bike was a life lesson Eli learned about perseverance. Now he knows that he will face challenges and resistance from time to time in life. He will feel frustration, and it will occur to him that he should just give up. But now he also knows that if he just keeps at it, the breakthrough moment will eventually come. Today he asked me if it’s hard to learn how to ride a unicycle. Oh boy.

Eli’s first solo ride down the block: