The Most Important Skill You’ll Ever Learn

March 13, 2014

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Go eagerly where the fear is.

You are at a party. Across the snack table, you notice a small crowd gathering around an underdressed guy in jeans and a t-shirt. He turns out to be a well-known science-fiction book agent. Just the person you are looking to meet since finishing your novel. You want to talk to that person. But he looks busy, probably wouldn’t appreciate another awestruck peon, and you wouldn’t get much talk time anyway. You are convinced it would be a waste of time. So you decide to ask the host for his e-mail address on your way out and write later. You have very good reasons not to introduce yourself.

But then…as you turn back to the friends you came with, you wonder, why are you even making reasons? You aren’t making that effort for anyone else in the room. Just this one guy who it would be a great idea not to talk to.

And that’s when you know: if you leave this party without introducing yourself, you will leave defeated. You will have found exactly the thing that you need to do to move forward, and shied away from it.

The things you need to do to move forward are always the things you fear doing.

Aspire to Failure

If you know you’re going to succeed, you have nothing to learn. It doesn’t take much courage or dedication to do something with no risk of failure.

Failure is the path to success. Mistakes teach us, and as long as we protect ourselves from making mistakes, we insulate ourselves from learning. Babies don’t learn to walk until they have fallen on their butts a lot.

But there’s a reason we are terrified of certain things and not others. I’m not talking about the sharp panicky fear of cliff jumping or the hot alarm of danger. I’m talking about the looming, queasy feeling of something we aren’t dealing with, the trailing ghost we refuse to turn and face, even though we know it’s there.

You Care Because It’s Important

You know you’re doing something significant when you’re a little nervous: playing a game you might lose, learning a skill you look bad at, meeting a person you have to impress. That uncertainty is a good thing.

It means you care, which itself means this thing is important to your life on some level.

You won’t bother coming up with excuses for why you can’t go skydiving if it’s not important to you. But when “I can’t do that because…” becomes a mantra, you have something you need to face.

The ghost is unnerving because it stands between you and the place you want to go–really the only place you can go. You must face it or you just wander around in the valley where you already know all the rocks and trees, putting off the inevitable, sometimes forever, because of the looming shade at the top of the pass.

Embrace Discomfort

The solution is simple: accept that sometimes you will be uncomfortable. Accept that you will be scared, that you will mess up, look stupid, be rejected, beaten, broken, even injured.

And understand that there is nothing wrong with any of that. It doesn’t mean you are less or stupid. It is simply feedback.

All humans will be forced into uncomfortable situations. Most people avoid them as long as possible. These people take a very long time to learn, if they ever do. Many face the situations but fight back instead of learning. Very few people seek out these uncomfortable experiences. Those who do deal with their fears quickly and move on to greater ones.

If you can master the skill of being out of your element, you can do anything. It is the key to rapid, directed growth. It allows you to constantly learn.

Mistakes and mess-ups are simply feedback. Accept discomfort into your life as you might accept a rain storm: it’s cold and miserable, but afterwards come the flowers.

If you’re not doing and seeking experiences that make you queasy on a regular basis you’ve become complacent. Take a dance class. Write a public blog. Teach a skill. Always seek new frontiers.

Stay comfortable with that discomfort. That is one of the most essential skills a person can have.

Want to learn how to go about mastering this skill? Sign up for the Practice of Excellence Newsletter for free weekly exercises to help you become your greatest self.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock on Flickr

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Leda March 18, 2014 at 2:32 pm

Very true, Khaled, and thank you for the excellent post. Made me chuckle, though, to realize that the three things you mention at the end – Take a dance class. Write a public blog. Teach a skill. – are things I do routinely. But there are skills others take for granted that I’ve found terrifying to acquire (try learning to drive at age 50).


Khaled March 19, 2014 at 2:23 pm

Thanks Leda! My big fear that I’m facing right now is dance classes, so that was why I picked it. Learning to find and eat wild plants iN NYC is a little nerve-wracking for me though :)


Lee March 19, 2014 at 9:00 am

You are truly a warrior, my friend, and as any good warrior/role model, an inspiration. I am about to embark on my own ‘test’ of how much discomfort I can tolerate … in starting a blog … exactly when I don’t know … I’m putting my vision and mission together. If you can image Seth Godin sitting down and talking to Joseph Campbell … that’s sort of it. A question, if I’m receiving your blog posts, are the exercises a separate sign up? If yes, I definitely will.


Khaled March 19, 2014 at 2:25 pm

Thank you for your support, Lee. I think you have a strong message that should be shared on a blog, so definitely go for it. It can be scary, but like anything, you get used to it. Sounds like a great topic idea.

The exercises are indeed a separate sign up. The e-mail list at the top right of the page is where you can sign in, or the link at the end of the article.


Tess March 20, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Thanks for writing this! It was exactly what I needed to read today. I’m sitting here staring at 2 of my papers that I need to revise. I feel like throwing up thinking about everything that I’m not sure of. Thinking that I need to do more work to make sure that it is all 100% correct. I’m so worried about people ripping it apart that I’m frozen and don’t even want to look at it.

It’s time to just jump in and do it. If people rip it apart when I send it out for comments, I will learn from that. It will make the papers better.

Thanks Khaled. :)


Khaled March 20, 2014 at 5:35 pm

Thanks for sharing, Tess. It sounds like you’re dealing with exactly what I was talking about and found the right perspective. Good luck :)


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