Mike Birbiglia is terrible at chemistry. That’s probably not surprising, since he’s a comedian not a chemist, but when he was a senior in high school it was so bad that his parents called his teacher, worried it might affect his chances to go to college.
The teacher reassured them — no, he wasn’t doing well, of course, but he would manage to get by. Then his teacher surprised them, as he went on to say how much he liked having Birbiglia in class, “...because he’s so willing to go up to the board and fail. He never has the right answer, he barely understands what we’re talking about, but he’s willing to try.”
It’s a little disheartening how unusual that is. I get it, though — I was never the first to raise my hand. Just trying can be so daunting. But trying is everything. (Sorry, Yoda.)
It’s so easy to find reasons not to bother, especially if, say, you’re getting a C-minus in chemistry and rarely get a question right. It’s uncomfortable to not yet be good at something, and we can be quick to view the struggle as evidence we’re just not good enough, that we might never succeed. But the mistakes we make along the way are a natural, essential aspect of how we learn.
In the book Incognito, neuroscientist David Eagleman explains that most of learning isn’t really the conscious process we might expect it to be — you don’t get to decide how fast and how easily you learn something. But that’s not much of a surprise, you already know you can’t simply pick up a book on tennis and understand it well enough to jump on the court like you’re Serena Williams, or read a French dictionary and begin to speak fluently. What the conscious mind might be able to understand, the brain still has to hardwire. So, while consciousness lets us set an intention to learn something, we then have to let the brain fumble its way through, exploring and adapting, trying and failing, making new connections.
The intention is the key. A strong enough intention will let us tolerate the discomfort of learning. But that discomfort is crucial, precisely because we don’t want to feel it. And it leaves us with two options: stop doing the thing that’s making us uncomfortable, or keep doing it until it’s not uncomfortable anymore. Give up, or... grow.
If your intention is strong, you stick with it and your brain makes new connections. You learn. If your intention isn’t strong, then giving up is a really tempting option. And a lot of times shifting to a different focus, a different intention, could actually be the right choice. But fear of failure is never the right reason to make that choice. Your mistakes don’t define your potential. You can never know your potential. There’s always room to grow.
In Eagleman’s newest book, Livewired, he demonstrates that capacity for growth with recent research showing the brain’s startling, amazing ability to continually adapt and make new connections throughout our entire lives. But to do that, to keep the brain healthy, you have to challenge it. You have to be willing to make mistakes. You have to be willing to be uncomfortable.
[By now you may be thinking, “Wait, I’m pretty sure Mike Birbiglia never did ace that chemistry class...” Of course he didn’t; he’s probably still terrible at chemistry. But his stronger intention was with comedy, and he’s a really great comedian. I suspect he’d agree that his willingness to get up and try (and fail) and try (and fail) and try, was crucial to that success.]
The Yoga Sutras describe many of the challenges we’re likely to encounter when trying to steady our focus, and sutra 1.17 specifically addresses the discomfort of learning something new. It explains that our initial understanding is always going to be merely superficial, even awkward — the Sanskrit word is vitarka. Then, with dedicated focus, we will develop more subtle, nuanced understanding, vichara; and only after that, with continued focus, do we necessarily come to a joyful ease in our understanding, ananda. With further practice it might even become second nature, asmita. Or, as Eagleman would explain it, by then it’s become hardwired into the brain and we don’t have to think about it anymore.
Now much as you might want to, you can’t just skip the first phase. It’s always going to start out awkward and difficult. It’s going to be uncomfortable before it’s not.
But maybe, if you choose to acknowledge and even embrace the discomfort, then in that awareness, and that acceptance, you might somehow find a broader sense of peace. Just as in our physical practice of yoga, where we’re trying to find a softness within the tension and an even, steady breath, maybe you can hold a peacefulness despite the discomfort. And that, just like anything, gets easier with practice.