What your Learning Zone is, and why it’s where creativity happens

“It’s not like you have to jump out of a plane,” says photographer Alex Baker when I ask her about how she keeps creating, “but it’s about pushing yourself then congratulating yourself for doing something daring.”

“I remember the first time I had to photograph a stranger on the street. It took me an hour to pluck up the courage, then the guy I asked told me to pay him $20!”1   

We’re often told that experiences like Alex’s are about ‘getting out of our comfort zone’. In fact the term ‘Comfort Zone’ is taken from a practical model that can help our creativity, but it’s only helpful when we know that the model has two other zones. According to educational psychologists, these are the Learning Zone and the Undeveloped Zone, and they can be enormously important to your creative practice.  

Understanding how we learn can help creative anxiety

I first came across the three zones in psychologist Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore’s work on children’s learning. “Perfectionist kids are convinced that mistakes should be avoided at all costs,” she explains. “Helping them to understand more about the learning process can alleviate some of their anxiety and dread about mistakes”.2 I’ve found that Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s interpretation of the zones helps creative anxiety, both for children and for many perfectionist adults too.

The Comfort Zone is where it comes easily

It’s helpful to think of the three zones as three circles that we move between when we work. The inner circle is our Comfort Zone, or ‘Mastery Zone’ as Dr Kennedy-Moore calls it. When we’re working in this zone, everything comes easily. The tasks flow, we feel fulfilled by our work and we gain satisfaction from its outcomes.

In the Comfort Zone, we have enough experience to be confident that what we’re doing is ‘good’. We mainly ‘get everything right’.

The Three Zones Model of Learning – image by Bay Backner for The 12 Day Society

The Undeveloped Zone is the opposite

The very outer circle is the Undeveloped Zone, and it’s the opposite story. This is when we’re completely at sea. We don’t have enough experience or knowledge to access what we’re being asked to do. Panic and frustration takes over because the expectations on us are too great. We ‘get everything wrong’, it feels impossible, and so, we give up. Then we feel shame or blame ourselves for not being ‘good enough’ to do it.

This is the zone in which you’d find a normal twelve year old who’s been asked to explain quantum mechanics, or where many of us find ourselves when we first have kids.

Creativity comes from your Learning Zone

Creativity actually comes from the middle zone, the Learning Zone. This is when we have enough experience to know where to start, but still have to challenge ourselves to make whatever it is we want happen. It’s where we learn and grow. As Dr. Kennedy-Moore puts it, “When your child comes home with red marks on a school paper, say, ‘It looks like you’re in the learning zone.’”. For learning and creativity, those red marks are a great place to be.

The problem is that for most of us grown-ups that feels deeply uncomfortable. We don’t want to put ourselves in situations in which we’re guaranteed to make mistakes. So in our professional lives, we often stay in our Comfort-Mastery Zone. We play it safe. Work projects or training days might occasionally push us into the Learning Zone, but it’s for a short stretch of time and we can usually manage the extra pressure. 

Unfortunately, creativity needs us to settle in as the Learning Zone’s full-time residents. We have to stay there willingly and for the long-term. This means managing our expectations so that we’re not pushed out into the Undeveloped Zone (that dangerous neighbourhood of despair), and to keep ourselves challenged so we don’t fall back into comfort-mastery (creativity’s retirement village). We also have to get happy about making mistakes. All this takes courage, stamina and perseverance, and quite a lot of self-control. So we’re about to learn a trick to make it easier – bear with me while I use another metaphor!

Creativity as a climbing wall – detail of a photo by Allan Mas

When we focus on our creative outcomes we fall off the wall

You’d probably agree that when we’re climbing a steep wall, the worst thing we can do is look down. We focus instead on climbing, putting one hand above another. That’s because looking down to see where we came from, or how high we are, will make us dizzy. Climbing is our “process”. How high we are in each moment is our current “outcome”. Getting better at our process (climbing) will help us. Looking at our current outcome (height) won’t help, and could actually put us in danger.

Unfortunately we’re somehow told the opposite applies to creativity. That we should look at the things we’ve created (our current outcomes), and believe that they are the most important. Our process, how well we’re doing with the day-to-day steps we need to take to be creative, largely gets forgotten. We look at our latest writing, painting or film and because it still falls short we get dizzy. We stop putting one hand above another and we fall off the wall. 

Outcomes take us into the Undeveloped Zone

This happens because a focus on our outcomes quickly takes us into the Undeveloped Zone. We’re disappointed in our outcomes, but don’t know enough to know how to improve them. We know rationally that we will only gain that knowledge through continued practice, but emotionally it becomes hard to continue. We become frustrated, overwhelmed or disheartened.

“I’m terrified before starting some projects,” agrees Alex. “They become less intimidating when I see them as a process, as lots of little creative problems to be solved. I’ll focus on the technical things, like analysing the lighting on my sets, rather than the shots I need to achieve. I guess experimenting is the right word. Moving things around, seeing what works. It makes it far less daunting.”

The Learning Zone loves your process, not your outcomes

So the trick is to see our creativity in those important terms – process and outcomes. It’s then knowing that a focus on process will help us. It will keep us more comfortably in the Learning Zone.

A focus on process means it doesn’t matter what we’re creating as long as we are creating. We trust that the creative process itself will take us wherever we need to go. 

The problem is that it’s not always easy to see the difference between your creative process and your outcomes. So for my book, The 12 Days of Creativity, I have created some tools to make this easier. You can read about them in the regular The 12 Day Society newsletter, which is free to all members. We’ll also send you new tips and techniques to stay creating in Learning Zone.


About the author

Bay Backner is an artist, activist and creativity educator. She is the founder of Thursday Society, and the author of the upcoming book The 12 Days of Creativity. Bay’s own creative path took her from a working-class background to an Oxford degree in physics, then from open source technology to painting for international art galleries.

Bay is a fully-qualified teacher and is certified by The Smithsonian Institution in teaching critical thinking through art. She is currently the resident artist and creativity teacher at a leading independent school, and teaches creative confidence for women from her painting studio in Valencia, Spain. Bay initially qualified as a teacher through the social change program, Teach First, and is committed to opening creative education to all.


Notes

1Alex Baker is an artist and commercial photographer. She became a professional photographer at 35, after a career as an orchestral percussionist. Alex’s portraits have been used by The Daily Mail, The Guardian and El Mundo and her powerful photography series “This Is Motherhood” exhibits internationally. You’ll hear more of Alex’s story in The 12 Days of Creativity.

2 From Dr. Kennedy-Moore’s excellent 2011 book Smart Parenting for Smart Kids: Nurturing Your Child’s True Potential

Header photo by Felicity Tai

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