The best learning experience I ever had – John Costello

Our next guest post comes from John Costello. John is CTO of careergro, the social development planning tool for employees and you can follow him on Twitter here.

John’s learning experience has a sporting context but more arm power and less horse power…

I recently had a learning experience in which the challenge stretched my skills.  I was out of my comfort zone and, in terms of the flow model by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, I was in a state of arousal and at times anxiety.

Flow is the mental state in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. To achieve the state you must have a balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and your perceived skills.

The river trip

When I joined my two Kayaking buddies Ger and Ultan at the Upper Liffey river in the Wicklow mountains I knew that I was not destined to experience this state of mind.  I was going to get plenty of flowing water. Irish White Water describes the Upper Liffey thus:

“This river is really one of the best Grade 4s in the country. It is sustained and challenging, but describing it drop by drop is nearly impossible as there are lots and lots of rapids. It starts off bouncy gets into longer tricky rapids and finishes with a nice drop but keeps you alert all the way down.”

Upper Liffey, image from Can you spot the kayaker?

Although I have experience of kayaking on this standard of river and I have the requisite certification demonstrating competence at this standard, I was very aware that I was rusty. We discussed this on the bank and I decided to get on knowing that I would be pushing my abilities, but confident that I could safely navigate the river.

Ger took the lead and Ultan the rear, the weakest member of the team usually positions themselves in the middle – that was me.  Straightaway the speed of the water was a challenge. I expected this, as it takes time to get used to fast water when you are out of practice. It didn’t make it any easier though and soon I found myself out of my boat swimming in a fast rapid. I managed to self rescue, somehow getting myself, my kayak and paddle to the bank.

I got back into my kayak and continued on. However now my performance was plummeting. The diagram on the left helps illustrate what was happening. It shows that performance improves with physiological arousal (I’m pretty sure my pulse rate was high!) up to a certain point and then performance decreases again. Add cognitive anxiety at this point and performance can crash.  I had started down this slope but, although my skills were deserting me, I had enough experience of white water kayaking to recognise this and to suppress my anxiety. My performance increased again and, with the more challenging sections of the river ahead of us, I started to enjoy myself. The rest of trip comprised lots of challenging rapids, and I was at the edge of my abilities but improving all the time. I capsized once more, in a place where it would not have been pleasant to have swum, but I rolled up successfully, which was a boost to my confidence.  Ger and Ultan were keeping an eye on me, pointing out lines and giving me pointers about my technique.  Everyone appreciated the importance of keeping anxiety levels down and there was plenty of conversation, joking etc whenever we had a brief respite from the action.

We knew that the run finished with a waterfall that was a step up from the rest of the river and we agreed that we would get out before this and have a look at it from the bank. No one was quite sure when it was coming up though. We came to a waterfall and Ger had a look, it wasn’t the final one. He went on and I followed. However this time I misjudged my line and ended up in the wrong place at the bottom. I capsized again. After several attempts to roll, I swam for the second time. I couldn’t see much, other than that I was in a rapid and I had quite a long swim through it, with a few bangs off rocks for good measure, until I clambered to the bank with my paddle still in my hand. Ultan had picked up my boat. Safe on the bank I could see the final waterfall just ahead. Just as well I had made the bank! I was done for the day. The guys ran the final waterfall and I stood by with a rope on the bank, just in case rescue was needed.

What I learned

As we were walking off Ger asked me if the day’s kayaking would have a positive of negative effect on my performance. Despite the final swim, I was positive. Here’s what I learned on the day:

  • By pushing out of my comfort zone I exposed a host of technical skills that I need to work on. I’m now planning to do this. You need to move out of your comfort zone sometimes in order to learn.
  • I did actually start the process of sharpening my skills on this trip.
  • Certification is not a useful indicator of performance. I performed much below the standard that I am certified to, because I had not practiced recently. The training that came before the certification was great but I wonder if the assessment and certification are even a negative, as they suggest that performance is a given at that level once you are certified.
  • Behaviours and attitudes trump skills. Recognising and being able to control my anxiety allowed me to operate at my maximum skill level. If I had greater skills but was unable to control my anxiety then my performance could easily have crashed at the first set back.
  • Having a strong and supportive team, and getting feedback and encouragement from them, was critical to this learning experience.

In the workplace do you have skills that you need to practice? Do you have certifications in areas where you have let your skills lapse? Do you ever move out out of your comfort zone in order to learn?


3 thoughts on “The best learning experience I ever had – John Costello

  1. Wow…sounded like a bit of an ordeal to me. But I recognise the benefits of taking things to ‘edge of the envelope’. It’s the same with my sea kayaking and to some extent the way it is with certain client projects. I like to try and do new stuff even though there is the possibility it may not work completely and we have to explain why to the client.

    I run some of the Celemi business simulations and one of the key aspects of some of their simulations is that if you choose to work on a challenging client project you develop your human capital score faster. In the simulation this learning is delivers much more value to your business than conventional training (which you can also elect to do).

    Still I reckon you are lucky to be alive John…but I bet the Guinness in the pub afterwards had a very high marginal utility!

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