Be Inspired

Effortful Learning

January 24, 2022

As an avid reader, I often come across quotes that speak to my passion for leadership (and yes, I LOVE a good personal development book!). Recently a friend shared a passage from Brené Brown’s new book Atlas of the Heart, where she defines and discusses human emotions. 

In one section she writes about “epistemic emotion—an emotion critical to knowledge acquisition and learning.” Brown refers to an article from Fast Company, in which Mary Slaughter and David Rock with the NeuroLeadership Institute write, “To be effective, learning needs to be effortful… The same way you feel a muscle ‘burn’ when it’s being strengthened, the brain needs to feel some discomfort when it’s learning.” Epistemic emotions, it seems, are a mix of feeling wonder, curiosity, confusion, and interest—all fueled by effort.


First, I was struck by the idea that we NEED emotions to acquire knowledge and learn new things. I had never thought about it quite like that. Then, the word “effortful” stood out to me. “Effortful learning”—what a perfect way to describe continuing education and personal development! That’s exactly what happens when I’m attending a workshop or conference, or when I’m on a coaching call with one of my mentors.

It’s also exactly what I see from attendees at our More Than Just Great Dancing® events. Sometimes people tell me it feels like their brain is on fire, and while of course that couldn’t be literally true (thank goodness!) I understand the sentiment. When you’re learning, sometimes you feel confused by a concept or stumped by an activity or curious about the next step, and your brain literally feels like it hurts from thinking! But you keep plowing ahead. You’re trying to connect dots that don’t quite connect—yet. And now I know those hurdles are actually NECESSARY to the learning process.

This idea fits from a dance point of view too. Think about when you have students who give it their all, in and out of the classroom. They are the ones who make progress, even if they don’t have as much natural facility as their peers. These hard working dancers are willing to push through the mental discomfort; they’re usually the ones who aren’t afraid to fail and try again. They might get confused or a little lost, but with effort they find their way. Perseverance changes the outcome. The learning sticks!

How many times have you been in an uncomfortable learning experience but ultimately found reward in the process—and eventually, the outcome? Think about your schooling, dance training, professional development: All places in life you’ve probably had that “brain on fire” feeling!

Think about it this way: If you’re too comfortable—if you’re not challenged enough or in the right ways—you simply don’t grow, whether it’s your mind or your muscles or both. Effort makes the difference between monotonous “learning” (in one ear and out the other) and true engagement in the topic at hand.

As I’m preparing for this year’s Studio Owner University® I can’t stop thinking about how cool it is that our thinking and emotions are tied so intrinsically together like this. In every facet of life, when we put in the effort, we get stronger. When the effort is a bit uncomfortable, that means it’s working! I think every entrepreneur—and especially every studio owner—knows this feeling well.

So, my encouragement to you is this: FIND situations where effortful learning will be required. Take a dance class for yourself. Sign up for that continuing education course. Volunteer with that organization you believe in. Step out of your norm and appreciate what an incredible miracle it is to gain new knowledge. 🙂

And if I’m going to see you at SOU (or if you’re attending virtually) be ready to pour rocket fuel on your brainpower! Remember this quote from Atlas of the Heart: “Comfortable learning environments rarely lead to deep learning.” Be prepared to do some hard work so you can stand confidently in every facet of your business.

Go for deep learning, friends. It’s what we were made for!



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