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The Learning Zone

Written by: Deb Sparrow
Published: Thu Aug 24 2017 16:05:22 GMT-0400 (EDT)

And above all, watch with glittering eyes the whole world around you because the greatest secrets are always hidden in the most unlikely places. Those who don’t believe in magic will never find it. –Roald Dahlleave your comfort zone 

Back to school season is upon us, and I have to say, that happened a little too quickly. Those hot, hazy days that I kept waiting for were few and far between this summer. Now my living room is full of the belongings of my youngest child, waiting to be packed into the car and delivered to her quarters at school. Taking her back to her small college in Connecticut as a senior is much different from leaving her there, a little lost and definitely alone in a crowd of others just like her, for her first year.

We were both out of our comfort zones just three short years ago. The college selection process was long and arduous, and at times, stressful and emotional. Not only did she move three states away, but she decided in her first week that her chosen sport, field hockey, was no longer what she wanted to do. Instead, she joined the rowing team. Now she is headed into her final year, a co-captain of her rowing team, doing well academically, and with some terrific friends. I am proud, happy, and sad, all at once.

While there were some rocky moments along the way, I knew very well that her growth, and anyone’s growth, including my own, generally only happens when we move outside of our comfort zone and stretch our learning.

It is fascinating to me that learning and growth can be so very uncomfortable and so very exhilarating at the same time. I love learning, and I am also humbled by how much I simply do not know. As I think back to my daughter’s first year of college, and then to her semester in Austria last year where it seemed like she grew up overnight, I am reminded of my own first semester of college and some of the lessons learned that have stayed with me. I would not be the same person today had I not understood that discomfort would both challenge and change me and that I needed to remain open to it.

I have often thought of what a gift I received to be able to attend a school like Bowdoin. When people weigh in, uninvited, about how ridiculous and wasteful the cost of a private liberal arts college is, I generally smile and simply say that I see it much differently. The benefits have to do with the interaction with those who think differently and live differently, perhaps look and sound differently, and as those lessons are absorbed, in learning about how to think and write critically and clearly, being open to other views, and finding out more about yourself, your beliefs, and your capabilities.

The events in Charlottesville this past week and the questions of racial divide and bias had me remembering my freshman English seminar at Bowdoin on literature of the American South. It ended up being one of my favorite classes, and it was a lifeline to learning at a time when I truly felt that I was in over my head intellectually. As it turns out, I was just beginning to learn and the path was set out beautifully in front of me. All I had to do was keep following it and not quit when things seemed overwhelming.

It was a valuable lesson. I needed to find my learning zone, which is my confidence zone. For me, that exists somewhere between the outer reaches of comfort, into discomfort, and sometimes delving into the danger zone. If you’re familiar with the three zones, comfort is where we like to be. It’s where nothing ever changes and learning stops. It is safe and easy, and often boring. Discomfort is uncertain and unclear, but also challenging and exciting. The danger zone for many is difficult and even terrifying. It is dangerous because it can induce such panic and paralysis that there is no learning and people simply shut down.   

Within my first-year English seminar learning zone, some of the material was more challenging than I had ever encountered. It was also a small class where participation and discussion were crucial to the learning. Other students in the class, most of them graduates of highly regarded East coast private schools and academies, were much more widely read than I, the product of a Maine public high school. In addition, our teacher, a Southern black woman who was not remotely impressed by our white privilege, did not hesitate to call us out, at times angrily and sarcastically, on our bias.  In doing so, she helped permanently broaden my view of the world and my own possibilities. If Ms. Lyles, who didn’t seem to like me one bit, thought I could write, maybe I really could. 

We read the novels of William Faulkner, and I’m not sure I have ever struggled with reading material that complex that I loved so completely. Not only that, but several of my fellow students were Southerners with dramatic regional drawls and of apparently considerable means. I have never forgotten the day that we were discussing our assigned reading, Black Boy by Richard Wright, and a young lady from Virginia mentioned that her grandfather had been a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Our instructor verbally lashed not only the student, but all of us in the room for not understanding the magnitude of the hate, violence, and fear that the KKK perpetuated and the terrible impact on lives that we did not understand.

As I think about it now, maybe there is a very different meaning to the Confederate flag and statues for those who suffered under the oppression and degradation of being the property of others, or whose ancestors did. I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that I am open to learning more. The lessons of history are endless, and sometimes you just have to keep asking thoughtful questions to find out what you haven’t considered before. 

How often do we have the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others? Sometimes we are open to other viewpoints and what we may not see, and other times we are adamant that we are right, that our values are the only right ones, so the opposing point of view must be wrong.

What fascinates me is the extent to which we can hold on to our learning comfort zones so tightly as adults. Based on our previous learning experiences, we can quickly get to the danger zone where we shut down to the possibilities of change and seeing or doing things in a different way.

Learning and change seem to happen outside of the comfort zone. When we are stuck, and restless, and bored, maybe that’s the answer. Find the place where the magic happens for you, and don’t be afraid of a little discomfort.

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is welcome.

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow

Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at Deb Sparrow worked in financial services senior leadership for over 25 years. She is a firm believer that "the universe always falls in love with a stubborn heart" as she explores the fork in the road and writes about it from time to time. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's inaugural Executive Leadership series. Follow her on LinkedIn at

Well written and so timely for me right now, Deb!! Discomfort is learning from our mistakes, letting go of controlling every little thing, and requires self analysis and figuring out what the hopes and opportunities are to move forward. Thank you!!