Uncomfortable Being Comfortable


For week nine and ten of Code Chrysalis the pace and focus have changed. I am now working on a final project with two of my classmates and we are using everything we learned in the course (and then some) to create an amazing web application which we will demo in two weeks. The experience has changed from an intensive learning environment and now feels more like going in to a job every day. A job that you really like.

The slowed pace of the bootcamp has given me a little more time to reflect and I started to question some of the teaching methods I endured during the first half of the class. I’ve mentioned it before, but the course is designed not to just teach coding, but to teach us how to learn how to code. At the beginning of the intensive ten weeks ago we were told we would have to get “comfortable being uncomfortable” and that we needed to trust this method.

I did trust it, for a couple reasons. First, the founders and instructors at the school are trustworthy. Second, this is not the first time I have heard this advice and it makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. You have to “get out of your comfort zone”, “break up your routine”, “stop doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”, and “feel the fear and do it anyway”.

So I did. I was uncomfortable a lot. There are things I used to think I was good at that I now know I am not. There have been assigned tasks that I am just not able to do at all. There have been days I have wanted to quit rather than go back and feel silently miserable (ok, mostly silent). And in the last couple weeks I started to resent it a little. I wondered if all of this uncomfortableness was really necessary or if it was just some sort of guru mumbo jumbo meant to give us Stockholm syndrome, creating Code Chrysalis Acolytes. Did I really need to be uncomfortable? [Spoiler alert: I did.]

I have a friend who works as a corporate Coach and I asked him about this approach. We had a very spirited conversation about why this is a good way to learn and grow, but in the end his answer was tautological, “It’s good for learning because it has been shown to be good for learning.” This did not satisfy me.

I started some research and it took me a good amount of time to find the right Google search before I could get beyond all of the feel-good articles about pushing yourself to be uncomfortable and making yourself better. But I kept digging and eventually got to the science behind it all.

This idea is over a century old and many articles I found site a 1908 study from the Journal of Comparative Neurology and Psychology Two psychologists showed that applying stress increased performance on mental tasks in rats. More recently a Berkley study showed acute stress made physical changes in rat brains leading to better memory retention.

Much of the reading I found on this concept also pointed out that the amount of stress that is beneficial falls into a “Goldilocks Zone“. Too little stress and there are no benefits, too much stress and the subject (that’s me) can be paralyzed with fear and stop learning. I want to note here that while I did have some pretty uncomfortable days and did at times feel paralyzed, I don’t believe I was ever pushed too far and everyone at Code Chrysalis was rooting for my success. It is a safe space.

The more I thought about this idea the more I realized that the opposite of “Comfortable being Uncomfortable” is just as true and maybe even more important for me. I need to be more uncomfortable when I start to get too comfortable. Even during the course I have allowed myself to become a little too comfortable with failure. We have daily code challenges that are almost always a stretch for me and I have gone from dreading them to just accepting that it isn’t something I am good at. It has been a great mind shift from the perspective of my enjoyment, but it means I don’t try quite as hard to solve the problem.

One last takeaway from this is that the Berkley study indicated that the benefits from being stressed don’t just help with the material you are leaning in the moment, but the effects have rewired your brain to improve your memory. However, without continued  stress the effects last only about two weeks. (I am paraphrasing liberally here for the way I understood it, if you are a biologist or have studied neurology I apologize in advance.)

Maybe I will find something stressful to do after CC ends so I can keep learning new things efficiently. Not a lot of stress, but I definitely wouldn’t want to get too comfortable.

I want you to learn how to learn. That means that at times you will be teaching yourself. This is an intentional choice. One of my chief goals is for you to take charge of your own education. Though I will help set a frame in which this will take place, many of you will feel uncomfortable, even overwhelmed, at this. That’s normal. It’s what independent learning feels like quite often.

– Kris Shaffer, An Open Letter to My students

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