I spent much of my life following one piece of advice, only to figure out that it needed some updating.
Part 1: The First Piece of Advice I Received Was Incomplete
One night I was in trouble with my parents, for showering with the neighbor kid or something like that. I had an endless capacity for mischief back then. My father was reprimanding me, saying: “Grow up. Make more adult choices.”
And I responded, “I don’t want to grow up. Being an adult is hard.”
Though angry and dumbfounded by my latest transgression, my father’s curiosity got the better of him and he asked me why I thought this.
I said, “Adults have to work to earn money to support themselves. What if I can’t figure out how to make money?”
“Earning a living is easy,” replied my father, a bit put out. “When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.”
When the time comes, you’ll know what to do.
This had a calming effect on me. He made it sound simple, like adulting was as easy as learning to ride a bike. It appears daunting, but then one day you just do it and it’s like you’ve been riding a bike your whole life.
I can’t say I never again worried about earning a living or supporting myself, but his advice led to the conviction that I wouldn’t faceplant.
Part 2: The Worryweaver
Fast forward 30 years and I’m trying to pass along the same lesson to my daughter, the chronic overthinker. She can’t listen to a new idea without leaping to all the things that could go wrong. Machinelike, weaving a loom of worry that leads her to conclude the new experience is just not worth it. Although her trepidation runs deeper than mine, I recognize it. It’s born from the same place: A fear of not knowing what to do in unfamiliar situations. Of being unprepared and embarrassed.
But those are two different things, aren’t they? There is being open to new experiences, however wild, dangerous or daunting they seem. And there’s having the tools and life training to be prepared for the unexpected.
When you want to master a new skill quickly, achieve proficiency overnight, go out on stage and play Mozart even if you can’t bang out Chopsticks… Well, I can tell you that dad’s advice probably won’t serve you. In those cases, you will not “rise to the level of your expectations so much as you will fall to the level of your training.” I discovered this when I tried to do a triathlon before
I learned to swim. Ask me how that went!
Part 3: Somewhere Between McGuyver & Common Sense
So where did I net out? I decided to tie string between these two guideposts and walk up and down the middle, toggling between the naïve optimism that gets your face ripped off and the exhaustive mastery that deters you from ever trying something in the first place. I choose the potential for disaster and embarrassment over hanging around pensively on the sidelines. (Embarrassment takes many shapes, like when I swam a 250 instead of a 200 at our last swim meet and signed off by accidentally ripping the timing bar off the pool.) Pase lo que pase la vida continua.
Routinely, I have to remind myself to be brave. It’s so easy to leave the heavy-lifting to someone else. One of my recent tries involved driving a boat this summer. Shame to grow up on the Cape and not be able to take out a boat! So when the sun and tides aligned, I took the family down to the dock. Mom climbed aboard and got comfortable on the bench seat in front of the steering console, as if I were a pedi-cab driver. Aunt Christy and the kids sat on the rim like they were waiting to get into a hot tub. I was left to simultaneously unhitch the boat from our slip and reverse it out of its parking space. I put on my “I got this” face.
My internal monologue during the 20-minute ride to Jeremy’s Point sounded like this: OK, right. Yes! Watch the depth. Watch for rocks. Is the engine the right height? Shit. Shit. Shit. Why aren’t we going faster when I give it more gas? Am I going to flood the engine? Can you flood the engine? Hey, I’m driving a boat! Yeah, baby. Watch out for the kayakers. Oh geez, that was a big wake. OMG, the engine is going to cut out and we’re going to drift. Throw the anchor, bitches, we’ve landed!
After a successful maiden voyage, I took the kids to the drive-in. As they tuned into Despicable Me 3, I tuned into how to set up a sea buoy. I wanted to disaster-proof myself, but this was definitely beyond my pay grade. I asked some boating friends what do when the engine cuts out, and here’s what they told me: “Well, last time we just drifted until we beached ourselves at the yacht club.” Ain’t no thing. Turns out boat trouble isn’t much different from car trouble. If you’re like most people, you just phone up AAA to come bail you out.
Part 4: Yes to Both
I’ve heard that problems are just surprises you don’t want. If you take only the familiar route, you deprive yourself of both. When the time comes, you will fall to the level of your training. Shout this into the wind, and it comes back: Start before you’re ready.