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'It's from the struggle that we grow'

Trevor Ragan visited WAPEC, discusses ways to become better learner

Union photo by Gretchen Teske

Trevor Ragan, founder of The Learner Lab, visited the Washington Area Performing Arts Center Friday, Feb. 14, to give a talk about becoming a better learner.
Union photo by Gretchen Teske Trevor Ragan, founder of The Learner Lab, visited the Washington Area Performing Arts Center Friday, Feb. 14, to give a talk about becoming a better learner.

WASHINGTON — Learning to function with fear instead of avoid it was the topic of discussion for motivational speaker Trevor Ragan who visited the Washington Area Performing Arts Center (WAPEC) on Friday.

Ragan spoke to groups of teachers in the Washington Community School District throughout the day as well as at a separate talk for community members. The founder of The Learner Lab, a website aimed at teaching people to “get better at getting better” spoke about different ways growth can occur.

He started his presentation with a picture of a tiger in a cage at a zoo. Ragan said the tiger’s life was fairly easy because it was within it’s comfort zone. A tiger in the jungle would have the opposite lifestyle in that it would be hunting and building skills.

If the zoo tiger were to enter the wild, he said, it would a large learning gap and would have to adapt to the new circumstances.

“That gap was more about the approach to learning than the tiger’s tools,” he said. Ragan said the caged tiger was in a comfort zone while the wild one was learning on his own.

Teaching people to step out of their own comfort zones and become jungle tigers.

“One of the biggest principles to come from growth is that no matter who we are, how old we are or what we’re trying to learn, we learn the best when we operate to the best of our abilities and a little out of our comfort zone,” he said.

Ragan said spending too much time in a comfort zone can be limiting because there is less opportunity for growth.

“We’re built to learn when we struggle,” he said.

A video was shown of a man trying to land a skateboard trick. After about 20 fails, the man finally landed the trick and was successful. Ragan said struggle is essential to growth because it teaches people that outcomes can change and stepping out of the comfort zone may not always be easy but it is always worth it.

“It doesn’t matter the skill we’re trying to build. The process we go through is always the same. Another rule of learning says we’re always going to be bad first,” he said. “It’s from the struggle that we grow. It’s not despite the struggle, it’s from the struggle.”

Fear of failure is the biggest hurdle, he said. This is normal because it is wired in by the amygdala, the part of the brain that’s function is to warn the brain about danger.

It is triggered most by uncertainty, attention, change and struggle, he said. Ragan gave an example of balancing a quarter on the back of his elbow and straightening his arm fast enough to catch it.

He tried teaching it to a child, he said, but they have up after the third try because they were facing uncertainty and struggle. The child was uncertain they could accomplish the trick and felt the struggle of not being able to accomplish it on the first try.

“Fear can rob us of potential outcomes,” he said.

After showing the child the video of the skateboarder, they tried again and after several attempts finally caught on. Ragan said the purpose of that exercise was not to defeat or get rid of fear, but learn how to work with it.

“Our amygdala isn’t going anywhere. You can’t stop part of your brain from doing what it’s wired to do which means in a big way fear isn’t going away,” he said. “The disclaimer of course is if you’re in danger, please listen to (your brain). But if the goal is to grow, this is a tool we can use.”

Ragan said he used to teach people to be fearless but has since learned that message is flawed. Being fearless is impossible, he said, but learning to change the way fear is interpreted, by using it to grow instead of letting it inhibit, can produce positive change.

“The goal is not to become fearless. The goal is we don’t want fear making our decisions when we’re trying to grow and the only way to get there is to practice that,” he said. “The jungle tiger learns to survive in the wild by living there so the same rules apply to us. We become better learners by spending more time learning.”