Improving your ability to learn means leaving your comfort zone

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In elementary school, I was taught that learning came from studious work, the discipline of memorization and retention of facts.

I took that same mindset with me to college and then to my first job as a junior programmer.

It wasn’t until years later, when I became an entrepreneur, that I came across a quote from author Josh Waitzkin that completely changed my perspective. “The key to striving for excellence is to embrace an organic, long-term learning process, and not live in a shell of static, secure mediocrity,” he wrote. “Often, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or security.”

Since that epiphanic moment, I’ve established several practices to help me improve my ability to learn that I’d like to share with you.

Don’t just rely on books – find a trusted mentor

Listen to me, I’m a big advocate of being a voracious reader. That said, improving our ability to learn and gain new insights is not only it comes from reading books — it also comes from new experiences and connections we make.

I would like to offer an example from my own life. When I started my company, Jotform, 16 years ago, I read every business book I could find. Whenever a problem arose, I looked for a solution in one of my books. The problem is that many entrepreneurs and startup startups are often caught off guard by unexpected scenarios – such as dealing with a troubled employee – and may not find the practical advice they seek in these pages.

For example, a book may offer an authoritative stance on how to handle problems with one of your team members, but not all situations are created equal and some require more kindness and subtlety. That’s why I’m a firm believer in finding a trusted mentor, someone who has been where you are and understands the nuances of soft skills and can guide you in making the right decisions.

Related: Looking for a Mentor? The 7 best places to start.

Spend time with people who are different from you

Many of us unwittingly get stuck in a bubble of the same crowd. Those with similar interests and affinities to us – we have lunch together, send memes and often feel truly in sync with each other. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one of the most enlightening things I’ve discovered in running my business has involved the insights learned from people who are completely different from me.

Why, you may ask? Because they offer new perspectives that make me think differently – they force me out of my comfort zone. Spending time with people different from us also does something else: it improves our “learning agility” – the ability to remain flexible and grow from our mistakes.

So, how to put this into practice exactly? By staying open. When reaching out to colleagues, you wouldn’t normally want to gravitate toward offering to take them out for coffee. But mostly, practicing active listening.

Related: Why active listening is a critical skill for founders and entrepreneurs

Take time to reflect

I’ll be honest here: chances are there isn’t a day that you’re not somehow looking at a screen. Your computer, your smartphone, your TV – and every other device under the sun. We’re getting information at a colossal speed (a lot of it is good, because we’re staying informed and finding comfort in having fun after two extremely difficult years).

However, the late American author and psychotherapist Richard Carlson wisely observed that reflection is “one of the most underutilized yet powerful tools for success.”

But how often are we actually doing this?

Here’s an activity I often enjoy and encourage my team to try: Take some time to listen to one of your favorite podcasts or audiobooks, and then go for a walk – in a park or in your neighborhood. This alone time, without distractions or interruptions, helps your mind to clear out any outside noise and process what you’ve just absorbed.

This is especially vital for us as entrepreneurs, as enhancing our reflective learning helps us break out of the daily grind and develop our critical thinking skills.

embrace the challenges

At Jotform, we recently unveiled our first new brand in over a decade. It was an exciting time to see our company grow without any external funding to 10 million users. I relay this news not to brag, but to ensure that all of this has not been without its challenges.

In the early days of building my startup, finding the right people was one of my main concerns. I wasn’t interested in hiring solely based on a person’s skills and talents – I also wanted to make sure they were a good fit for the culture I was trying to build.

Over the years, as we’ve grown, our challenges have become more complex. But what I want to say is this: One of the best ways to improve my own ability to learn was to embrace these tests instead of giving in to their pressure.

Harvard Business Review contributors JP Flaum and Becky Winkler explain that “to learn from these challenges, the individual must remain present and engaged, deal with the stress caused by ambiguity, and adapt quickly to perform,” they write. “This requires observation and listening skills and the ability to process data quickly.”

Related: Entrepreneurship is overcoming obstacles

keep stretching

A pivotal moment for me in my life was leaving my home country of Turkey and choosing to study Computer Science at the University of Bridgeport in the United States.

Needless to say, venturing into uncharted territory has increased my ability to learn and adapt at an advanced pace. Living in a foreign country meant learning new mindsets, customs and ways of doing things – all of which led to learning. I consider it one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Because it’s those kinds of risks that lead to opportunity – the kind that push you out of your comfort zone and ultimately instill confidence in your abilities.

Later, when I started my own business, I kept to this approach of taking progressive risks – continually innovating and defining my own vision of success. All this without $0 in external funding.

Stretching doesn’t necessarily mean changing your life and moving to another country. It’s about taking bigger steps than you normally would; it’s about allowing yourself to embrace new experiences, even if they are challenging or uncomfortable.

It involves leaving your sense of security behind to harness your ability to grow.

Related: Why stepping out of your comfort zone is the best thing you can do as an entrepreneur

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