Riding the bumps of inexperience
Negativity bias and other barriers to learning and growth
Have you ever been through the gut-wrenching experience of being new at something? If you’re one of us (i.e. human) then chances are you have, countless times. And yet it never gets easier, does it? In fact it gets harder since the neural connections that receive and process new information weaken as we get older.
I have countless stories about my personal struggle with learning. But none as tricky as having to learn how to cycle at the age of 27. So when I started my new career as a User Experience designer early last year, and a lot of similar themes started to emerge, I decided to inspect things a little closer.
It’s never too late
As strange as it may sound, when I moved to the Netherlands at the age of 24 I didn’t know how to cycle. It took me three years of self-deception, and a steep formula of public transport and Uber-rides, to finally admit to myself that I was scared shitless. The only thing that stood between me and the bike lane was fear. And if I ever planned on cycling I had to face it.
When I finally committed to learning how to cycle I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I expected the physical discomfort, sure, but not the emotional distress. Not only was I going to expose myself to the harshness of the exterior circumstances (Dutch cyclists are notorious). I was also about to wake up all sorts of biases, old beliefs, and destructive patterns. Inner barriers whose main job is to protect me from failure by predicting it. And ironically, by manifesting it.
Fast forward to three years later, I now hop on my bike without giving it much thought. I forgot how awful it used to feel, and how much anxiety I had to grapple with when I was new at it.
When I reflect back on the past nine months at my new job, that same emotional distress continues to linger—the discomfort of being new. Much like the first time I rolled down a slope at the park holding onto my bike handles for dear life, I often feel raw and vulnerable with no clear sense of direction. I’m growing and learning, I know. But somehow I can’t always see it.
What I remember most from my experience of learning how to cycle are these three specific barriers:
My inner critic in combination with negativity bias telling me that I was doing it all wrong. Shame as a by-product of shame culture, which keeps moments like these in the dark and praises success as if it came out of nowhere. And my own ego, or individualism if you will, telling me that I should be able to take this step completely on my own.
But I’ve managed to challenge all three, otherwise I’d still be paying 80 euros a month on public transport (ouch). So what can one growth experience teach me about the other? To find out let’s take a ride down memory lane.
Barrier one: Inner-critic meets negativity bias
It’s difficult to explain what rush hour looks like in Amsterdam unless you’ve experienced it yourself. But I’ll give it a try.
The bike lane in a no man’s land. It’s a wild jungle of Amsterdammers who were practically born on a bike. These natural born riders are either rushing to work while being confronted with the reality of awful weather (which is 95% of the year), or are rushing back home. Hangry and frustrated they will show no mercy.
Now imagine learning how to cycle in that environment. It was tough. It was my worst nightmare turned into a reality, where the voices in my head had finally conspired with the outside world to break me. I felt as if everything and everyone was constantly reminding me of my shortcomings. Telling me that I was either cycling too slow, not using hand signs, or cycling too much like a tourist (the biggest insult of them all). Every new cycling experience added to my compounded dread. I would start sweating at the simple thought of having to cycle.
What I didn’t know back then is that I was under the spell of my negativity bias. I was subconsciously collecting more and more of the same negative information and internalising it as “I’m not good enough” and “I suck at this” and “I’m failing”.
You could think of it here as the engine that runs the inner critic by feeding it more of the same information. Much like confirmation bias except in this case it’s all doom and gloom. If you ever felt like you can’t see anything positive about a situation, then you can probably thank your negativity bias for it.
Turning a negative loop into a positive one
I’m not exactly sure how it happened. I think I just got fed up of all the negativity inside my mind. But one day I decided that I had a choice: I couldn’t control the outer critics, but I could learn how to tame my inner one. Every time my inner critic tried to join the choir of bullies, I fought back by reminding myself that I was surrounded by people who have been doing this their entire lives. It wasn’t fair to compare. And if I ever planned on going forward with my plan I first had to let go of my unrealistic expectations about myself.
It was time to challenge the story of “not good enough”. Because that story was simply untrue. I was good enough considering my own experience. But just not as good as those who had more time to learn and practice.
And as I started to challenge the story “not good enough”, I also began to make peace with the outside world. The bells ringing, the shouts and the insults, and my sweaty palms started to bother me less and less. They were no longer a confirmation of how much I sucked. Instead they were a normal consequence of being new and inexperienced at something.
When the inner critic started to quiet down my confidence began to grow. Which improved my focus and performance. And my improved performance created less friction with the outside world. Until eventually the outside critics began to quiet down too. Which of course, gave me even more confidence.
Insight one: Good enough, considering.
When I started my new job as a UX designer I couldn’t help but notice how seamlessly everyone else was going about their day. While I was literally crawling out of my skin trying to make sense of everything: the acronyms, the ambiguous prototyping tools, and all the gibberish tech terms. Imposter syndrome hit hard. And before I knew it my inner critic was back at it.
Different environment, same story: “The reason they’re all better than me is because there’s something wrong with me. I’m just not good enough.” But the simple truth is that there is nothing wrong with me, or you, or any of us. Learning and growth take time and energy. And we can either make it harder on ourselves by listening to our inner critic, feeding our negativity bias, and believing stories of “not good enough”. Or we can make it a little easier by creating a new narrative of “good enough, considering”.
By saying “I’m good enough for someone who’s never done this before”. Or “I’m good enough for someone who’s only done it once, or for a week etc.” you slowly begin to shape a new, kinder reality. One that’s not destroying your confidence, but is instead building it up. The choice is entirely yours.
Barrier two: Shame-culture
When children fall we comfort and reassure them. We tell them that falling (failing) is just part of the learning process. But there comes a moment when falling gets taken out of the equation. Instead, it becomes intertwined with stories of shame—something that needs to be avoided. Because grown ups are not supposed to fall or fail. They’re supposed to magically have their act together.
But where does this nonsense narrative come from? I’ll tell you: shame culture. Shame cultures are designed to use shame to keep people in-line and/or to steer their behaviour. And it works.
Shame creates separation to manipulate desired behavior. It puts you in a corner and says “there’s something wrong with you, and that makes you different from the rest of us”. By doing so it also kicks you out of the tribe. And back in the day when we lived in actual tribes and small tight-knit communities, being separated from our tribe meant death. Literally. Because surviving on our own wasn’t an option. We needed our tribe to find or hunt for food, and to ward off predators and enemies.
When we experience shame in this day and age, be it internal or external, we spiral back into our primitive minds. Feelings of shame activate our limbic stress response, which floods our body with stress hormones. And Research shows that stress disconnect us from our prefrontal cortex, which controls logical thinking and plays a big part in learning. In simple speak, learning and shame are polar opposites.
Becoming shame resilient
I was raised to be a perfectionist and to avoid error at all cost. Failure wasn’t part of my inner or outer narrative. Instead, myths about perfectionism steered me towards familiar options, and away from experimenting and learning new things. I sticked to what I was already good at because it meant not having to face potential setbacks, and consequently not having to feel shame.
I didn’t know how to deal with failure, so technically I didn’t know how to deal with growth either. And for the longest time I didn’t question the destructive narrative that was handed to me. Because where and when do we talk about facing the shame of failure? We don’t. It’s just too dark and raw for us to handle.
When I started cycling in Amsterdam what scared me most wasn’t the pain of falling off my bike or getting hurt. It was the shame of having to pick myself up in front of everyone. The shame of “failing” in public and having to deal with the humiliation of it all. And when I started cycling with friends I was terribly ashamed of telling them that I wasn’t enjoying cycling side-to-side carefree and chit-chatting, and that I still needed to focus fully on the road. I was also ashamed of my shame and so I tried to hide it, while experiencing immense emotional stress.
And yet I fell, no matter how hard I tried to avoid it. But what I didn’t know back then is that everytime I got back on I was becoming more and more shame resilient.
Insight two: The other face of shame is courage
Brené Brown, aka the queen of shame resilience, said it best: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” What she meant by this is that change and growth in any shape or form can’t happen unless you are willing to face shame. And facing shame is super uncomfortable.
To survive the sting of shame I started a new practice of distancing myself from it. When shame came knocking I would take a step back and focus on what I wanted instead of what it was trying to tell me. And what I wanted above all was to cycle everyday like it was no big deal.
In my new career I’ve rubbed shoulders with shame more times than I can count. I’ve been asked questions to which I had no answers in workshops and meetings full of important stakeholders. I’ve had to admit not knowing how to use multiple tools. And I’ve hit dead-ends in my process, not knowing what to do next because I’ve never done it before. But I didn’t let shame get to me. Why? Because I’ve learned that this discomfort is a sign of me being out of my comfort zone. Which also means I’m growing and expanding. And if I resist listening to shame in that moment then what I’m ultimately choosing is courage.
So what if you can’t answer a question? It’s an opportunity to learn something new. So what if you don’t know how to use a tool? Aren’t tools just means to an end? If you don’t know one, chances are you know many others that can get you very similar results. I will never forget this talk by Apple designer Guillaume Ardaud titled “60 second prototyping” where he used Keynote to prototype and test an app. Keynote!
And what about not knowing how to get yourself out of a situation? May I suggest stepping over your ego and asking for help? After all, you’re probably not the first human on earth to face the same problem. And someone else might be able to nudge you in the right direction. Which brings me to the next barrier.
Barrier three: Individualism
Don’t get me wrong. Self reliance is important and sexy. But it can also be self-destructive and a big barrier to growth. Let me explain.
I used to praise myself for being an “independent woman”. I bought my bike convinced that I’ll learn how to ride it on my own. And then it just sat there, collecting dust, rain and pigeon crap for a year. My do-it-yourself ethos didn’t cover this part of the journey.
I tried doing it my way, really hard, but I needed more than just grit and Youtube tutorials. I needed someone to hold the back of my bike. And I was lucky enough to find a volunteer, a mentor. Someone who took the time to show me the ropes, and who was brave enough to watch me cycle into a busy street of cyclists (thanks James). But man was it hard to swallow my ego and accept the help.
It’s not personal
The tricky part about asking for help, and the reason it feels so vulnerable, is because the other person has the option to say no. So most of the time what stops us from reaching out is our fear of rejection. Our ego doesn’t handle rejection very well. We take it personally, assuming that it has something to do with us. When in reality there could be a million other reasons why someone decided to turn us down at that moment.
It also doesn’t help that capitalist cultures perpetuate myths like “the lone genius“. We assume that successful people got to where they are completely on their own. When in reality there’s often entire teams supporting and rooting for them. And although it makes complete sense once we say it out loud, we often forget that we’re not entirely on our own and that asking for help is nothing short of human.
I started working on my transition into UX two years ago. And in that transition I had to ask for help and guidance A LOT. I approached people on Twitter and LinkedIn. Cold-emailed professionals for advice and feedback. Drilled instructors with questions after training was over. And probably did a lot of other things that were completely out of my comfort zone.
I needed to understand what I was getting myself into. So I had to rely on the kindness and willingness of strangers to guide me. And although I got a lot of kind responses and most people were genuinely helpful, I also got rejected and ghosted a lot.
And that’s completely fine. Not everyone has the mentor gene or the courage to invest in you and then potentially watch you crash and fall. Not all companies have the resources, time and space for new blood. Not all strangers have the patience and space to return your email or answer your questions. So if you want the right kind of help you need to be persistent and thick skinned. You need to swallow your pride and get over your fear of rejection.
Insight three: You get the help you think you deserve
When I was switching from graphic design to UX design I felt very lonely. Everyone around me seemed happily settled in their careers. That’s why joining supportive groups to establish a sense of community was so important. For me that was Ladies that UX.
I also felt super insecure and thought I lacked a lot of skills. But by talking to people who had made the same move I was reassured over and over that I have many valuable and transferable skills. And that in fact I was at an advantage because I had a fresh perspective. And when I was applying for jobs I worried about over promising or disappointing my future employer. Which is why I chose to be super honest. It was very tempting to skip this part and immediately jump into “I got this” and “look mommy, no hands!”. But that would’ve been self destructive.
So if you’re planning to embark on a learning journey, remember: joining a community, seeking reassurance and practicing honesty can go a long way. And if you feel like you don’t need help and struggle with reaching out, try to ask yourself why. Is it because you’re genuinely fine on your own? Or is it because you’ve subscribed to the idea that you’re supposed to be doing everything on your own? Because ultimately, you deserve support. You deserve an entire team, chearlers included.
Remember to celebrate your growth
Last week I drank a coffee while cruising through the park on my bike. It was great. I no longer have to think about navigation as much or avoid rush hour (which used to haunt me). I’m proud of myself. Considering where I’ve come from.
Part of continuous learning and growth is marking your own little wins and celebrating them. Afterall, it’s your process, and you should only measure your growth against yourself.
And there will come a time when you’ll forget what it was like to be new. I’m not there yet with UX, but I’ve been there before with other things, so I know it will come. And it will come for you too.