I learned computer programming in college. What I liked most about it was that I could create something out of nothing. It felt very rewarding to be able to do so. One of my best friends was a programming wizard. He was the guy that could solve anybody’s coding challenge with a handful of rapid keystrokes. He would use a computer so fast that I could hardly keep up with him. As a result, I told myself that I could never be a great programmer like that. And so I never tried. It would be twelve years before I wrote another line of code.
I’ve reflected on that decision making process over the years and found a simple answer: I wasn’t willing to be bad at programming. Not knowing how to do something well is uncomfortable. It feels almost shameful. Especially when other people seem to be doing it so well. I lived in French speaking countries for most of my teenage years. And my French sucks for this same reason – an unwillingness to be bad at something in front of other people.
But on a more subtle level, I can trace this avoidance of discomfort to the deepest recess of my being. There is an uncomfortable existential unknown at the root of human experience. And it has taken me a lifetime of self-exploration to recognize it as a source of both aversion and possibility.
There is a constant subtle tension between being and becoming. Nothing is stationary. And reality is ever emerging in new ways. It is the unknown of this newness that speaks to the discomfort of being. If something is truly new it implies unfamiliarity and unfamiliarity is uncomfortable.
You could argue that much of our existence revolves around avoiding the existential unknown of human experience. And yet, if being is uncomfortable and people are naturally predisposed to avoiding discomfort, what does that suggest about the human condition?
Interestingly, I have found that it is this very attribute – the uncertainty of the unknown – that is also the seed of meaningful possibility. It is the space from which newness is actualized. Without a willingness to be uncomfortable, there can be no growth – we are stuck repeating patterns of the past.
I have found great value in a body of work called Theory U from MIT professor Otto Scharmer. Theory U offers an iterative and intuitive way of working with the unknown: observe, hold space and stillness for new insight to emerge, take small action steps. Repeat. It is a simple and effective way of leaning into discomfort while moving towards a guiding intention.
In learning how to be with my discomfort I am learning how to be. I am learning how to grow; how to be with the intimacy of authentic human engagement; how to be with my own awkwardness and that of others; how to be with all the uncomfortable little moments that ultimately offer me life’s richness. I am learning how to listen deeply.
And my reflection is this: they don’t teach you this shit in school.
Years of working with and guiding small groups have led me to observe that many people don’t really know how to listen on a deep and embodied level. I say this in the same way that I might observe that someone doesn’t speak a language. There is no expectation that a person who hasn’t studied Spanish should speak it. Listening is far more subtle. And being together with other people is more complex still.
It’s easy to assume that seven billion people should just know how to get along. But what if we literally need to learn how to be together? What does that mean? What does that look like?
For me, the key insight is not that I am bad at something. Rather it is that everything, even being human, is a learning process. I find this tremendously liberating and empowering. It allows me to be exactly where I am, knowing that the future holds the potential of whatever I choose to learn.
A few years ago, I decided to relearn how to program. It was uncomfortable and the first two years were a tremendous uphill climb. Four years later I lead development on a collaborative learning platform with thousands of registered users. Am I a “great” programmer? I am good enough. And as I lean into the discomfort of what I do not know, I might even become better.
I invite you to share your own reflections on being. What have you learned? What insights have helped you grow? What has helped you in the human journey?