Last summer, I was really excited to publish a new zine, "How to Be Wrong" in collaboration with my friend Jason. Working together over the course of a few months, he illustrated and I wrote about some concepts I'd been thinking about for months -- mainly, how a closed mindset (that I think we often deploy by default to protect ourselves)-- holds us back from learning new things and connecting with other people. The journey we took creating it definitely made me more aware and introspective and it's been exciting for us to get to share it beyond friends and family with help from Milwaukee bookstore Lion's Tooth and Microcosm Publishing who reaches audiences worldwide.
As I now close in on two months in Switzerland, it's a topic I'm continuing to think about a lot. I'm getting a lot of practice in this skill! Even without a lot of culture shock, I've been navigating a lot of change - a new city, a new job, daily opportunities to listen to & speak in a different language. I've had to remind myself that in "How to be Wrong" my advice to readers was to cheer your mistakes because it meant you were learning.
That said, I've realized while I thought of myself as having a "learner's mindset," the image of this I had in my mind was reading about a topic I wasn't familiar with, getting comfortable enough to say "I don't know" or asking questions after a speaker's presentation. But there's another aspect to a learner's mindset I hadn't been giving as much thought to, one that is much less cool and controlled... it's the courage you have to muster through doing something you might not even be sure how to do, in front of others and to keep going-- through potential confusion and corrections.
My friend Kate who learned Spanish during a study abroad program told me it took her six months to be fluent and that it involved a lot of help from her host family. She reminded me about how we all learn our first language, with loved ones listening to us and providing helpful corrections. When you might say something like, "I walk" they gently correct you to say "Honey, you're walking." It's funny how these mistakes that we cheer little ones through can feel painfully embarrassing as we get older. I recognized at one point that though I wanted to get better in French, I was finding myself looking for ways to avoid speaking it.
While we speak English at work, I've similarly found myself realizing there are several differences in how we approach fundraising and relationship management here than what I've done in past roles. And like most jobs, even if you get a thorough orientation, there isn't an instruction manual to help you through all you'll be asked to do. You just have to do it!
I'm working with a great leader in my role at the IFRC who has frequently repeated the motto, "We learn by doing!" And while it's a phrase I've heard and used myself before - it's become a new call to action for me. Mistakes continue to be one of my best teachers and while I've made a lot of them, I've learned so much from them and at a much faster rate than I would have been able to by reading on my own or asking question every time.
Here are a few observations from my last few weeks in case they may help you:
Your Environment Matters - Having a supportive community around you makes a world of a difference. While you might not be able to expect this from people you're around just once, like in a grocery store or restaurant-- make sure you can expect it and that you practice it yourself in your closest relationships with family, friends and coworkers.
Right, Wrong, Normal, Different... Does it Matter? - So much of what we consider as "right" is really just what we're used to. When you're asked to do something new, just starting with what you know on paper is often better than hesitating until you can have all of your questions answered.
Consider the Stakes - They're usually low! And easy to correct! Even in the most important of tasks, it's usually easier to make corrections than to wait until it is perfect. Very few people will care if the subject/verb in your second language don't agree and if you miss your bus stop, you usually just need to walk a few extra blocks.
Reflect - Journaling regularly helps me to think about what am I experiencing and what I am learning and has been helping me to power through more mistakes.
Challenge Yourself - It's called a comfort zone for a reason, and so it can be easy to stay there because usually you get decide if & when you leave it. Having a weekly challenge to go to an event or speak to a stranger has helped me to do things that I don't have to do... but that I know will help me grow.
Slow Down - I started to notice a few weeks ago that I have a tendency to speed up when I think I'm making a mistake, maybe as a way in my mind to make the discomfort pass more quickly. Unfortunately, it has the opposite effect! Slowing down is a better way to make sure I understand and am being understood. Thirty extra seconds of clarification may feel uncomfortable, but not learning the lesson you need to usually means you will repeat it.
It Gets Easier... And Then You Get Better - At first, the idea of muddling through a conversation where I wasn't sure if I'd know all the words was daunting. While it's still not completely comfortable, it's gotten much easier. And because I tried, I've come away with new words and phrases. If you wait until you feel you can do it perfectly, you'll probably never speak!
Kindness is a Universal Language - A smile goes such a long way and most people love to see you attempting to make an effort to do something new and unfamiliar. Most people are cheering for you, there's no reason to be embarrassed! Remember to be kind to yourself, extending the same grace you would to another person you know is doing their best to learn.