Monday, June 8, 2015

Cognitive Dissonance, Agency, and Growth

[This post is part of a series: Piaget, Dewey, and Vertical Learning.]

Consider cognitive dissonance for a moment. You have a theory that you think is accurate. But now you have to admit to being wrong: your theory is inaccurate. You may have held that theory for years. Other theories may be based on it. It may be central to your world view. It may have taken years for you to develop and you may be immensely proud of it. And now you have to let it go.

When Alec prompted me to reexamine Piaget and Dewey, and I realized that I needed to revise my understanding of their theories, I was happy. I’ve learned to recognize cognitive dissonance as an opportunity for growth and new learning. But that is a learned response. At a much deeper level, cognitive dissonance is still a powerful blow to the ego. Alec and I get together every few months, and I enjoy our conversations because he challenges me to think in new ways. But if he was challenging me daily or weekly, I might grow to resent it. I have resented it. I resent it when I feel like I’m not challenging him in the same way, or when I feel like revising my thinking isn’t enabling us to interact at a higher level. In other words, I resent it when I feel like a little kid learning at someone’s knee and I’m not making much progress.

Alec and I are peers, so that affects how I experience that relationship. Sarah has been my coach for two years. Even though there is no expectation that she will learn from me as I learn from her, it is important to me that she has. But more important is my sense that I’ve been able to internalize the things that I’ve learned, which enables us to take on work that has a much wider scope and impact.

When I first hired Sarah, I had concrete goals in mind. For example, I had the opportunity to pitch one of my ideas to a hundred people in the edtech community. I wasn’t that worried about the pitch itself, but I was scared of the networking that would follow. Sarah suggested that I take some time to think about who I wanted to be at the event and to visualize what that would look like. I then made a plan for myself. While the evening didn’t go exactly according to plan, it went well. At past networking events, I would try to decide what to do in the moment. As the wheels in my head spun, I probably looked like a deer in headlights. By developing a plan ahead of time, I took a lot of thinking (and second guessing) out of the equation and let my reflexes take over. I felt active instead of passive, and this carried over into the energy I brought to each interaction.

If all we had done is work through my concrete goals in a year, I would have considered my time with Sarah very well spent. But as we worked together, I was emboldened to stretch farther and farther, to goals that I had put on the back burner years ago and to goals that I had never even admitted to myself. After working through less than half of my concrete goals, I knew that I had the tools to finish those goals myself and I started setting my sights on bigger targets.

For decades, I have known that I’m at my best when I’m in the moment. I can be very analytical and tend to over think things, hampering my ability to act. When I can turn off that part of my brain for a little while and just be, I’m smarter and happier. There’s always been some tension between the spontaneous person I envision myself to be and the work that I’ve done with Sarah to be more intentional and to use pre-planning to break away from default patterns. I haven’t experienced cognitive dissonance because I’ve viewed this work as transitional: in the future, once I’ve broken old habits and established new ways of being, I’ll be present with myself enough to make all of my decisions in the moment. But recent experiences have made me question that.

It is hard to be in the moment when thinking about everything at the same time. It is hard to work on this blog post if I’m thinking about whether or not blogging is my best, most strategic use of time. And it’s probably not the best time to re-open that discussion when I’m in the midst of struggling with a difficult thought or passage. So how do I know what to think about when?

A week ago, Sarah gave me a little nudge that made me see things differently. What if it’s not about my conscious mind knowing when to plan and when to be in the moment? Maybe it’s about integrating the different parts of myself. At times, I feel like the different parts of myself are battling for dominance. This cacophony makes it hard to function and I rarely feel at peace with my decisions. I’m often happy with an experience after I’ve had it, but almost never happy going into it. This battling takes a huge toll on me. But maybe the parts of myself are battling because they don’t trust that they will get what they need when they need it? If I feed the parts of myself whenever they stand up, maybe they will be happy and learn to manage themselves. This is a new line of thinking for me, but it makes sense. I’m running some experiments to see how well my experiences fit this new mental model.

I wouldn’t have been receptive to Sarah’s nudge if we hadn’t built trust over the years. But I wouldn’t have trusted Sarah if I didn’t sense that she was capable of nudging me in the right places. Being in a state of constant cognitive dissonance is difficult, even when you know that it is good for you. I would say that it is impossible unless you can sense yourself growing and taking on more things. If there was any hint that I was dependent on Sarah and not growing, I would resent and reject her nudges, and our coaching relationship would break down. To be in a state of constant cognitive dissonance, we need to experience agency and growth.

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