Have You Outgrown Your Shell? The Importance of Risk-Taking

Written by on May 28, 2009 in Learning Tips - No comments

Hermit Crab“The key to pursuing excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not live in a shell of static, safe mediocrity. Usually growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety.” -Josh Waitzkin

Are you completely comfortable? Relaxed? Worry-free? If so, you’re probably not learning much. Deep learning often requires risk taking. When you set your standards high, put yourself in a vulnerable position, and try something new, true growth can occur.

Josh Waitzkin, National Chess Champion and World Champion in martial arts, knows a thing or two about learning. He became an expert in two major disciplines before the age of 30.

In his highly-recommended book, The Art of Learning, Waitzkin illustrates the idea of risk-taking with this metaphor:

“The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process… As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase between shells is where our growth can spring from.”

This is tough stuff. If you try, you might not succeed. You might fail. You might disappoint yourself and others. But, the effort is worth the risk. A person can never become great at what he does without stepping out of his comfort zone. The alternative is not to take a chance at all.

So, what do you do if you’ve outgrown your shell? If your learning has plateaued and you’re not making any progress?

1. Realize that growth is going to be uncomfortable, but embrace it anyway. Looking back, the times when I was the most afraid / uncomfortable are the situations in which I learned the most. I started teaching high school in my own classroom when I was 19. Truthfully, I was terrified. Some of the students at the school were older than me, it was a tough area, and there wasn’t much peer support. But, that year I learned more about education and the learning process than I ever had before. That experience that shaped many of my current views and led me to become an education writer.

Yes, it was tough. But, it was also worth it. Waitzkin warns learners not to become an “anorexic hermit crab.” Don’t starve yourself to limit your growth just because you’re afraid. As Susan Jeffers says: “Feel the fear…and do it anyway.”

2. Look for a shell with room to grow. If you only concern yourself with minor improvements, you may wear yourself out by constantly reevaluating your goals. You’ll get bored too quickly or concentrate too much on accomplishing something that might otherwise be easy for you. So, when you’re looking for a shell / goal, think big. Recently, I decided to become a runner. I didn’t grow up in an athletic family and I always dreaded sports growing up. But, it’s time for a change. At first, I thought I’d pick up a “5k shell.” But, I think I can do better. I’m going to choose a “marathon shell” instead. It’s definitely going to be several sizes too big for a while (but not so big it will fall off…i.e. the “triathlon shell”). After a few months of practice, however, I think it’ll be good fit.

3. Don’t get too comfortable. You’re not going to be completely out of your element forever. Eventually, you’ll grow into your “shell” and your new reality of success will start to feel commonplace. Learn what you can from the situation and bask in the calmness that comes from feeling completely in control. But, don’t stop there. Soon, you’ll notice that things are getting a little tight. It’s time to experience that terrifying, exhilarating nakedness that comes from looking for a new shell.

Creative Commons License photo credit: soapbeard

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