Why do people sometimes find learning so frightening?

Even me – last weekend I was offered the opportunity to organize a 4-day meeting of senior scientists, systems thinkers and sustainability practitioners on the topic of climate change and behaviour change. My response – no way! I have worked in the sustainable development field for over 20 years now, but I have never worked directly on the climate issue and am certainly not a SME (subject matter expert) in that complex field – I work in capacity development and learning.

Then I thought more about this – what was it about the meeting that caused me to react like that? In retrospect, it was probably being acutely aware of the enormous body of knowledge that already exists, the proliferation of different opinions about what to do about it, and a bit of fear about providing a quality event to a very high calibre audience. Overall it represented to me a very steep learning curve and a great sense of responsibility. How many other people react like this to a) big learning generally and b) the climate issue in particular?

I fortunately got to sleep on it, and the next morning I reframed this for myself. I need to learn more about this issue (as do some other 6 billion people on the planet), so I needed to embrace this opportunity to work on the climate issue. I needed to put myself in the way of learning – to jump in front of the bus, so to speak – not sit there on the sidewalk and watch it go by because it is going too fast, is too big, and seems unstoppable.

I found this analogy useful to give me the energy to take on this challenge. However, my friend Valdis, who works in climate change policy for one of the Baltic governments, usefully pointed out that by “jumping in front of a bus” you could get squashed. He observed that thinking about learning like that can take people from their comfort zone, through their eustress (or good stress zone) into distress. I think that was my case when I was first confronted with organizing a meeting about climate change. He suggested that instead of telling people to embrace new learning by “jumping in front of the bus”, to encourage them to push themselves or take risks in a safer way.

So I took the challenge to organize that meeting, I am going to learn alot more about climate change in the next year, and, with the help of my very knowledgeable friends, will not get squashed in front of the bus, but will do a little learning bungee jumping instead.

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