To no one’s surprise, nostalgia is very much in vogue in the middle of this pandemic. That’s understandable. Psychologists say that experiencing distress, or “negative mood” is a very common trigger of nostalgia. As a temporary reprieve from the pressures of the present world, these past happy memories can be a helpful coping device.
But as a long-term strategy for getting through and — more importantly — thriving on the other side of the pandemic, nostalgia alone will not be enough. With past pandemics and crises as a guide, the world never goes back to the old way of doing things after such a shock to the system. As someone whose entire career has focused on ensuring that history is part of our present and future, I want to make certain that we don’t discount the past. But this pandemic will require that we adjust to the reality of inevitable change.
We can adjust, becoming more effective in our jobs and in life while also promoting our cognitive health, by embracing enthusiastic learning during and after this crisis. Which brings me to my yoga practice.
Let me say upfront that I’m not very good at yoga. Yet.
I can pretty much nail the basics of the corpse pose — which involves lying flat on one’s back and breathing — but even something so simple has multiple layers and levels of understanding. I’m sure that with just about every other pose and movement, I have something misplaced or out of alignment. And I know that I’m breathing in all the wrong places, if I even remember to breathe at all. Yet, I’ve come to realize that I’m learning a whole different set of lessons from yoga than the things I would have expected. Lessons I can apply in this time of crisis.
I have, of course, learned about mindfulness and flexibility. That was my intention, and it is what many individuals reference when discussing the benefits of their yoga practice.
But more importantly, I’ve learned to let go, make mistakes, and not really care that I am doing my poor imitation of a yoga pose in a studio full of flexible, mindful people, many of whom have forgotten more than I’ll ever know. I am reminded, again, of the value of always trying new things without worrying about competence or skill or the judgment of others.
My colleague and friend Andi Stevenson has an insightful TEDx talk entitled The Importance of Being a Rookie. She reminds us that while we rightly enjoy being talented and competent at our jobs and hobbies, “We can’t overlook the value of being absolutely terrible at something new. Inspiration, innovation and joy come from hurling ourselves into new challenges and embracing the role of rookie: an enthusiastic, humble, undaunted learner.”
Being a rookie, from Andi’s perspective:
- kills perfectionism,
- increases empathy,
- changes our approach to the new and difficult, and
- helps you find what saves your soul.
These are all spot on, and I encourage you to watch the entire talk to hear her explanations. Once we try something new, we are open to other experiences where we may not have knowledge, expertise, or mastery. And that’s a good thing for our growth and well-being. My example of being a rookie is my yoga practice. What was Andi’s? Well, she took her competent, Type-A, executive, nerd personality to a class where she had to wear spangled dresses — with so many sequins and so much beading that “you could see it from space” — and learn ballroom dancing. I can’t imagine…but that’s her point. It was totally new, frightening, challenging, and ultimately life changing.
As I advanced in my career I became better at what I did and took on more responsibility. I also took on more concerns that I present myself as knowledgeable, competent, and professional. One way to do that is to stop trying new things while continuing to hone the skills one’s already acquired. Yet pushing back against learning new things will make life more of a challenge as we come through the coronavirus crisis.
Our lives will be different individually and in our communities, and there are already predictions as to what that new way of living will entail. On a personal level, we may adjust our thinking about how and where we live. Families may decide to drop the current, never-ending push for more activities and reclaim their weekends.* In our professional lives, we will think differently about remote work. Jobs and businesses that once existed will be gone, while new jobs and new business opportunities will begin to grow. As a nation, perhaps we’ll come to see child-care as an essential need and we’ll recognize teachers and nurses for the amazing professionals they are, while undertaking the hard work to make those changes stick. I hope we’ll take voting more seriously because we see government as something helpful rather than part of the problem.
Some will, no doubt, be nostalgic, trying to hold on to their old way of doing things and their old privileges. But like the owners of the buggy whip factories of the late 19th century, they will fail. To successfully navigate this new reality, we need to be willing to be an enthusiastic learner. As I’ve seen through my yoga practice, we lose so much by not trying new things where we may feel uncomfortable or are not very good (yet). With yoga, once I got passed those concerns and met two insightful and patient teachers in Michele Russ and Amy Dixon, I found I really enjoyed the practice, at whatever level I’m capable of at the moment. During this time of sheltering-in-place, my thirty minutes of daily practice — before coffee or electronics or anything else in the morning — has helped center my day. And I still see Michele and Amy to get the benefit of their wisdom, only now it comes online.
The writer Ursula K. Le Guin notes in No Time to Spare that there are people who, in her words, realize the incredible amount we learn “between our birthday and our last day.” If we are flexible enough in mind and spirit to recognize “how rich we are in knowledge, and in all that lies around us yet to learn,” we can maintain the seeking, trusting capacity for learning and life that we had as a two-year-old.
In this time when everything has changed, why not consider embracing your inner student or your inner rookie, as Andi calls it. Use this time to cultivate a sense of wonder. We are going to need new ways of addressing the problems of our families, organizations, businesses, and country. This is as good a time as any to become an enthusiastic learner.
Stay safe, well, and resilient this week.
More to come.
*It was Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, who said, “Weekends don’t count unless you spend them doing something completely pointless.”