A wise teacher I once had said this about pursuing excellence:
"Whenever you're trying to get better at something, there's where you are at your starting point, and then way far ahead of you is where you want to be--mastery, the flow state, whatever. In between there is the field of suck. There is no way around the field of suck, and no one gets to skip the field of suck. We all have to wade through the field of suck before we get to mastery."
The field of suck is a frustrating place. It's disappointing, wanting to do something well and being unable to do it. To compound the problem, we frequently have to muddle through the field of suck under observation. While you're trying and failing and disappointed that you're not there yet, there are usually people WATCHING you try and fail.
For many of us, it is so humiliating to fail in front of others that we may give up. We look up from our struggle, wondering how much more we must endure, eye the distance between where we are and where we want to be, calculate how much more humiliation may be in store--and decide it's not worth it.
Does this sound familiar? Have you given up on a dream because you couldn't bear to spend one more minute in the field of suck?
Then I beg you to acquaint yourself with Brené Brown. Surely you've heard of her--the TED talk she gave in 2010 has over 30 million views:
A researcher and bestselling author, Brown focuses on courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. She believes "that vulnerability – the willingness to be 'all in' even when you know it can mean failing and hurting – is brave."
You need a lot of courage to enter the field of suck, and even more courage to stay in the field of suck when the going gets rough. Brown argues the only way to muster such courage is to get comfortable with vulnerability. My wise teacher says you can't get to mastery without wading through the field of suck; Brown, in her book Daring Greatly, says that "you can't get to courage without walking through vulnerability" (sorry I haven't cited page numbers, I listened to the audiobook!).
Daring Greatly is a roadmap for cultivating courage. Even if you've seen every Brené Brown YouTube clip ever posted, getting the Full Story from the researcher/storyteller herself is another experience entirely, so I really do recommend the whole darn thing. But I'm going to focus on just one piece.
The part of the book that most resonated for me at this moment in my life--as I've just completed my first semester of graduate school--is the section on feedback.
In life, we have to deal with feedback all the time. At work, we get performance reviews; at home, we get in fights over how well we washed the dishes. Handled poorly, feedback can be hurtful. But handled wholeheartedly (Brown's big buzzword), feedback moves you forward through the field of suck. Or as Brown puts it, "without feedback there can be no transformative change."
My master's program in marriage and family therapy relies heavily on feedback as part of a learning-centered educational design. Rather than relying on grades alone, feedback in this MFT program consists of discussions about strengths and "growth edges." This means that you can't just get your report card and go hide in your car--you offer your work in class, and then you have to sit there and get feedback from your classmates as well as your professor.
I'm not going to lie, it's tough. Brown uses the word "uncomfortable" to describe these hard conversations. Sure. If you've got straight-A tendencies like me, it's "uncomfortable" like having a sharp rock in your shoe is uncomfortable. That is to say, it can be excruciating. But Brown emphasizes that the goal is not to simply become comfortable with the feedback process--the way through, she argues, is to normalize the discomfort.
This struck such a deep chord with me because, at this point in my life, I've tried all the other ways to dissipate the uncomfortableness of receiving feedback, and they don't work. It never gets easy. And what I've realized is that if I can let go of my defenses and really take in constructive feedback, I move forward through the field of suck. Other people know things I don't, and learning from them is how I can make the transformative changes I'd like to see in myself.
Normalizing discomfort, then, is how we all settle in to feedback. And according to Brown, you have a responsibility to help normalize discomfort for those around you and lead the way with the following declaration:
“We believe growth and learning are uncomfortable so it’s going to happen here, you’re going to feel that way. We want you to know it’s normal and an expectation here, you’re not alone and we ask that you stay open and lean into it.”
Letting people know that the uncomfortableness is normal, Brown argues, reduces anxiety, fear, and shame--those things that drive us out of the field of suck before we've reached our goals.
Leaning into the discomfort is, in my mind, wallowing in the field of suck. Settling in, deciding to stay awhile--opting out of surrender, no matter how unpleasant the experience. Because there is no way around the field of suck.
Making the conscious decision ahead of time to lean into the discomfort of receiving feedback has perhaps been the best thing I've done for myself in this entire graduate school process. I so passionately want to become a therapist, but I recognize I have a whole field of suck ahead of me. Wasting any energy fighting the field of suck would be counterproductive. Instead, recognizing the inevitability of discomfort has freed me to really hear feedback, to incorporate it into my own growth process. Feedback doesn't mean I've done something wrong--it means I have taken another step through the field of suck.
"Vulnerability," Brown reminds us, "is at the heart of the feedback process... [and it] never goes away, but experience gives us the knowledge that we can survive the exposure and uncertainty, and that it's worth the risk." This, I think, is a powerful argument for "[cultivating] the courage to be uncomfortable and to teach the people around us to expect discomfort as a part of growth."
I hope you've been inspired to cultivate the courage to be vulnerable and wallow in the field of suck--if you need a little help finding your way to that courage, I highly recommend Daring Greatly.
P.S. Brené Brown was on Oprah's podcast and it was soooooo good, I've posted the episodes below if you're interested!