I went on a bike ride with a friend last year along a rail trail. I think this was the first time I’d ridden a bike in literally 25 years. It was a beautiful afternoon, but this ride was seriously ugly. There were a million people on the trail: kids on bikes and babies in strollers and people milling about in packs. And then there was me: I couldn’t steer or change gears, I swerved out trying to go up slight inclines, and every time the trail sort of squiggled, I would almost kill someone. It was very humbling. There were 6-year-olds riding past me probably wondering what this old-ass woman was doing putting her foot down to brake.
That ride is something I probably wouldn’t have said yes to 10 years ago, because I wouldn’t have wanted to look stupid. And I would have missed out on a great time with my friend. I think we are all naturally a little scared to start something new, because we don’t want to look silly. As kids we are encouraged to start new things all the time – when we’re in school, it’s literally our job to learn things.
And then we get into the adult world, and we’re expected to just know what to do. I think that’s why a lot of us feel like we’re playing house all the time, and of course this contributes to the impostor syndrome we recognize in high achievers like veterinary professionals – I don’t automatically know how to have difficult conversations with my partner, or make things right with a friend who’s been out of touch, or talk to my insurance company about why I just got a huge bill; and I don’t know how to fix every problem with every patient that walks in the door. But it feels like I’m supposed to know how to do all that, and that people expect me to know. That imagined expectation can create enormous amounts of stress when we inevitably encounter a situation we haven’t learned how to manage.
But there’s something about taking up a new sport and committing to it – even more so than a new hobby, like knitting or drawing, because the nature of sports and physical activity is that they tend to be outside your safe bubble and in front of other people – and about going through that phase where you feel like a hopeless noob, that makes you braver. And that phase can last a long time, because if you want to get better, you have to keep pushing yourself to do things you’re not sure you’re ready for.
Starting to run, learning how to teach a dance fitness class when I don’t know how to dance or teach, choosing to work out at a small gym where trainers text me if I don’t come in for a while and I wait my turn while watching college athletes put more and more weight on the bar – these things are fraught with absolutely guaranteed humiliation, but in the end, importantly, I got through them and DID NOT DIE. Last year, on a whim after seeing an Instagram post I liked, I went to an Indian dance fusion class full of trained dancers and I was the only one who absolutely could not do a lot of it, but again – I DID NOT DIE. I even had fun trying. Which somehow makes it much easier now to go into a room with someone and admit I don’t know the answers, and to have faith that I will find them if they’re out there for me to find.
I think beginner mindset is something you can teach yourself. We have it naturally as kids, even if we don’t always love trying new things – it’s just what life is about when you’re little, and hopefully we have people around us making us feel safe while we stretch ourselves. What we need as adults is to remind ourselves what that felt like, and not to be afraid of that newness. To allow ourselves to say, “This learning curve is going to be steep – but think of the muscles I’ll build on the way up.” We don’t always know when the steep part will end – but in the right light, looking ahead at the miles or barbells or whatever it is we’ve chosen to chase, that might be the most thrilling part.