The Pain Cave of Learning

Over a year ago, I went through several rounds of interviewing for a dreamy position. My favorite part of the interview process involved one team who asked me a question that was off the script. Hot damn!

Let me pause and admit, that for some, this would be a red flag. But. Oh. My. Gawd. Y’all. It made my heart sing and made me feel inspired to work for these people. To work hard with these people. The boss wasn’t part of this interview, so that was another good sign. They knew they could go off script and she would support them. Truth be told, the job they were hiring me to do didn’t have a script, so to speak, and I thought this was a genius way to get to know me as a person.

Anyone who thinks you can stick to a script when it comes to working with faculty and technology is not somebody I trust. Not somebody I want to work for. Serendipity and spontaneity is the joyful work of education. And that’s why I love working with teachers. They always feel empowered to tell you EXACTLY how they feel. You have to be flexible. You have to enjoy being flexible because that’s how you earn the trust of teachers.

After we got through the scripted questions, the committee said that they’d like me to teach them something in two minutes. They would time me, and I could teach them about anything as long as it wasn’t related to technology, teaching, or instructional design.



It was clearly a question that helped their close-knit team get to know a potential new hire. So creative. So brilliant, I thought. My brain blew up in a million directions. What to say to really smart people? Ack!

Having just helped coordinate a cyclo-cross clinic for women who were new to the sport, my heart was tangled up in racing. The weekend before my interview, my bike team had hired local pros for the main instruction, and then we broke into groups to practice. I was finally in a position to mentor other women, and it meant a lot to me to give back to that awesome little community by encouraging newbies to the sport. When I went to my first clinic, there were only three women. Five years later, we had almost 25 women and girls for the beginner clinic.

So with that little feminist glow hugging my brain, I decided to teach my interviewers about The Pain Cave.

If you aren’t into sporty activities, competing, or being athletic, stick with me, this concept applies to teaching and learning. I promise.

For two minutes during my interview, I described cyclo-cross which is a form of bike racing on a closed race circuit. Cross, historically speaking, was invented to help road cyclists stay in shape during the off-season. The muddy season. A cyclo-cross bike looks like regular road bike but it has knobby tires and it’s meant for the mud and dirt, not smooth pavement. It’s a type of racing that if you slow down for a break, you’re losing. In order to race, you have to go full gas for 30, 40, or 60 minutes depending on your division.

When you are truly in the zone of racing, I described, you enter The Pain Cave.

When racers talk about going into The Pain Cave they are talking about being in complete suffer-mode, yet they continue. Every muscle may be in an anaerobic state and it’s a pure battle between your mind and your body to keep pedaling.

Body says, “No. I hate you. Please. Stop!”

Brain says “You. Must. Keep. Pedaling.”

The great Jens Voigt summarizes this feeling with his catch phrase: “Shut up legs.”

Racers will identify the moment that they go into The Pain Cave as the hardest part of the race. The moment you learned how hard the race is and how it will only get harder to the finish.

The first rule of cross is that you must try to ride everything, and if you can’t ride the terrain, you hop off your bike, pick it up, and run as fast as you can. Weather is always factor since the race season takes place when autumn is duking it out with winter. The worse the weather, the more you have to commit to being in The Pain Cave. For me, it’s the physical joy of suffering. You only focus on one thing: Surviving. Suffering. Pedaling. Breathing. Moving forward. Staying upright. Surviving. Suffering.

The Pain Cave.

I honestly I don’t remember everything I said because I was trying to meet that two-minute mark, and I was beyond nervous that I wasn’t being brainy enough. Later when I was offered the job, the team shared with me how they liked my teaching of The Pain Cave. We joked about The Pain Cave, and it became a bit of a refrain during the too short time I spent with that team. Then I accepted another job, and forgot about The Pain Cave two-minute talk.

This memory resurfaced lately because I’m giving up another cross season because of my job and some other circumstances. And cross is on the mind! A Belgium superstar came to an American race (omg, I love you, Sven). One of my favorite lady racers is killing it this season (get ’em Court). I might be joining a team again (take me back, QoD). Either way, I’m definitely going to get back to it in 2017, and it’s going to be fun to train. I might even hop into a cross country race this winter.

I really miss The Pain Cave–and I really need to find time for it in 2017.

So how does The Pain Cave connect to teaching and learning? Are you still with me, pedagogy folks? The Pain Cave, albeit a concept from cycling, is really a state of mind. It’s the best way I can explain the value of life-long learning. When you’re trying to ride your bike smoothly, quickly, and gracefully against other people, it’s more rewarding when you remember that the race is really against yourself.

Did you catch that? The race is really against yourself. You.

Other people motivate you to go faster, but it’s really up to you to stay consistent. To stay smooth. To stay focused. Being in The Pain Cave is where you find true harmony between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. It’s about having a goal (finishing the race) and learning what you can do to improve (staying in The Pain Cave longer).

If you are learning something new that makes you really uncomfortable, then you’re in The Pain of Cave of Learning. If you are teaching something new, then, you guessed it, you’re in the Pain Cave of Teaching. I show people The Pain Cave all the time these days.

It’s never comfortable. It’s never easy. It’s not uncommon for me to teach people what the acronym OER means one day and then the next day, I’m facilitating a discussion about the value of the Creative Commons license CC BY versus CC BY SA with those same teachers.



Here’s the thing.

Only you can choose to go into The Pain Cave. Whether it’s interviewing, teaching, learning, or going through a major change with your institution as a leader. You have to commit. You have to say to yourself, “I’m going to suffer through this because I know it’s worth it. I need this sense of accomplishment to finish this race. I can do it.”

You have to say to yourself, “I’m going to learn this new thing that makes me uncomfortable because I know it will make me a better. I want to be a better teacher/thinker/learner/person/colleague/friend/teammate.”

Whatever. The Pain Cave is life-long learning.

And it is sometimes very hard to see how all the pieces of pain come together.

I haven’t quite fleshed out this idea hence the blogginess of this bloggy, but when I think about change in higher education, it feels like The Pain Cave.

It’s hard. Challenging. Messy. Unpredictable. Tough. Unknown. Unscripted. Painful. One foot putting pressure on one pedal at a time. Moving forward.

As Amy Collier writes about leadership:

Leadership is heart breaking…and if it’s not, you might be doing it wrong.


That’s My Pain Cave, too. I’m not sure I’m doing anything right because I’m constantly doubting what I’m doing. There is no script to refer to for right and wrong choices. What I’m saying to teachers. What I’m advising. What I’m teaching. But I know we have to move forward for students.

One pedal. In front. Of the other. Forward.

I’d like to somehow tie Amy’s incredible blog to Bonnie Stewart’s recent post because I think the most effective part of The Pain Cave is sharing and connecting your experience with and to others. The best teacher leaders teach me this. You make the road by sharing your map forward, if you will.

Whether it’s riding bikes. Whether it’s teaching and learning. We make the road by walking. By writing. By doing. By teaching. By thinking. By leading.

There is suffering if you are doing it right.

Bonnie blows my mind with this quote:

I believe that education is a process of offering people tools – conceptual as well as technical – to understand their identities and possibilities and those of others within a structural framework that points to various paths of possible agency.

Seeing those “various paths” is an individual choice with the collective. Yes.

I stand in front of a lot of teachers lately with a conflicted heart. I can’t ignore the unrest and joy that many of fellow citizens are experiencing right now post election. The fear. The victory. The challenges. The horror. The assaults. The false news. Connect that anxiety to the reality of dropping enrollments. The cancelled degree plans. The rise of guided pathways. The strategic plans. The pressure of accreditation.

The unknown.

The line ahead is not so easy. Yet we pedal. We identify the obstacles and we pick up our bikes. We choose the line, if you will, by riding.

One pedal. One foot. In front. Of the other.

We pedal towards unknown future of a lifelong learning Pain Cave. Our Pain Cave.


About Alyson Indrunas

Always learning about instructional design, educational technology, professional development, adult education, and writing.
This entry was posted in All The Things and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Pain Cave of Learning

  1. CogDog says:

    The pain cave of commenting is when the mobile app munches one.

    Such a meaningful idea at an appropriate time for me, as I was second guessing a project aiming a bit far outside my usual scope. So thanks.

    In my vanished comment I think I mused about entering the cave is no guarantee of a victory payoff, it’s a mainly a possibility of that happening. And that possibility is nil if you never enter.


    • I know that mobile small box, but you’ve given me some big thoughts. And omg, Bryan Alexander linked this post to the book group. I read their book back in graduate, so now I’m thinking I need to pick it up again. I have a much different lens now, and Kate’s focus on lens has me thinking. Whatever new project you’re doing will be awesome, I’m sure. What I didn’t flesh out is how time in the pain cave always makes it easier the next time around. There’s a connection to fitness there really, but with teaching and learning I think it’s confidence. Being able to say “I don’t know” with your students is really hard when you are teaching teachers. They hate having their time wasted with needless “training” and I get it. But sometimes, I really don’t know. Hopefully your next pain cave project turns out well. And thanks, as always, for reading and posting.


  2. Pingback: What is our online book club becoming? | Bryan Alexander

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s