I’ve been waging a long battle with my brain these past few years. It fritzes out at random moments. Words I’ve known since third grade elude me. Names? Forget it. Couldn’t tell you who I met five minutes ago. Last week I wasn’t even sure of the year and spent a solid two minutes trying to remember: 2018 or 2019? Despite being assured by doctors that there’s nothing physically wrong with me, I still freak out at the thought that my mental sharpness might be declining for unknown reasons. (The best anyone can tell me is that it’s hormone related as I’m “probably” too young for dementia, but that’s not encouraging.)
Part of this battle has been to find every trick I can to keep my brain in shape. Exercise, eating better, sleeping well, reading more (and more challenging) books, and continuously learning are all things I’m doing to push my brain to stay well. Heaven help me, I’ve even resorted to refreshing my math skills, and I cannot tell you how much I hate math. But, it does put my brain through some tough exercises, even if I get 70% of the problems wrong.
I’ve also been trying to do a lot of new things. Sometimes it’s as simple as visiting a section of town I’ve never been to before. Other times, it’s something more difficult like learning a new skill or trying out a new hobby or interest. Some of these experiments end well (see, cooking), others end in, if not disaster, outcomes that we’ll call unsatisfactory. Regardless, these efforts yield a sense of mastery and accomplishment. They also improve my forgetfulness and lift the brain fog, at least temporarily. What I’m learning from this is that doing new things is one of the best things I can do for my brain.
The problem is, as “easy” as it is to try new things, I still suffer from a fear of looking stupid. And I’m not the only one. I hear from many friends and others that, “I’d like to do XYZ, but I won’t be good at it and I’ll look stupid. I’d rather just hang back and watch.”
This is a problem in two ways. First, it simply means missing out on lots of potentially fun stuff. If you never try new things, who knows what you might miss. You could miss discovering the hobby of a lifetime, or a skill you can turn into great wealth. Or, you know, at least something that’s fun.
Second, and important to my brain battle, fear of learning new things can cripple your brain. Newness is like catnip for your brain. Novelty helps your brain grow, expand, and make new connections. It’s how you make those connections between seemingly unrelated things that make you go, “Ah ha!” If you never learn anything new, your brain atrophies from lack of use. It gets bored and goes to sleep. You get through each day and handle your basic functions, but that’s about it. Do this long enough and it can actually become more difficult to learn new things. Your brain says, “Eh. You haven’t asked anything of me in so long, I’m not sure i’m up to it.” It’s much harder to overcome that inertia once it sets in.
I wonder how many of us are letting the fear of looking stupid cripple our brains? When I was young, pre-social media, there was little worry about looking silly. Sure, your friends got a good laugh if you screwed up, and maybe word got around your school, but that was about the extent of the punishment. It quickly faded and everyone moved on. The damage often wasn’t severe enough to keep you from doing the new thing if you really enjoyed it. You did your thing, got better, and eventually everyone forgot about your awkward first efforts.
Now? Screw ups are public events, especially if whatever you’re trying ends up on the internet. And a lot of it does, because that’s the world in which we live. Whether you’re an adult or child, everything seems to end up published somewhere. Maybe you put it out there. If the new thing you’re trying is something like photography, web design, or creating some form of “content,” then you put it out there to be judged. Even if you don’t intend for everyone to see it, people often do. Say you’re trying to learn to skateboard and someone videos you at the skate park. They post it on YouTube and suddenly you’re “The guy who fell 20 times in 10 minutes!”
Worse, it’s out there forever. No matter how good you may later get, your first efforts remain in the public domain. Imagine if someone had filmed Beethoven learning the piano. No matter the success of his later pieces, people would always be able to see and laugh at his early efforts. Sure, some might see it as a story of perseverance, but others would just laugh and post negative comments. That’s the fate that awaits even those of us who eventually become good at a new thing. It’s not exactly a recipe for coming out of your shell, is it?
Story break: I know a guy who creates review videos for board games. He got started years ago, before video technology was as affordable, available, and easy to use as it is now. (And definitely before he would have known how to use it, even if he could have afforded it.) He began with a cheap camera setup in his living room. The videos were jumpy, dark, blurry, hard to hear, and clearly not professional. But he still managed to convey the information well and developed a small following. Now, years later, he has a huge following and his videos are well done. He stuck with it, gradually invested in new equipment, and improved.
Yet even now he gets bashed for those early videos. They’re all still on his channel because 1) They’re still relevant and, 2) There’s no way he’s going back to remake everything he’s ever done. Snarky commenters can’t resist attacking those early videos for their low quality. I don’t know whether people genuinely don’t know how much he has improved, or if it’s just fun to crap on something, even if that crap isn’t justified. Whatever the case, he still has to deal with negative feedback on his earliest efforts. It must be hard to come so far and have people still disrespect you for even trying in the first place.
Kudos to the guy for keeping going. He definitely benefitted from the fact that he started out at a time when expectations were lower. If he started today, on the low end of the learning curve, I don’t know if he would have kept going. If it were me, I don’t think I’d enjoy having my old work critiqued (and crapped on) daily just because it was a first effort. Especially not knowing how much better my new work is.
The judgment can be harsh, and there’s no mercy for the learning curve. We’re often expected to be experts from the first try. When our first efforts aren’t very good, people can be cruel. Especially internet trolls hiding behind anonymous keyboards. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sport, a hobby, some kind of content creation, or cooking, if it ends up in public view, you can expect some harsh judgment that will discourage you from continuing.
Sure, you can try to keep your stuff private, but if what you want to do requires public consumption, you have to put it out there. Things like reviews, comics, art, opinion pieces, blogs, etc. are fun to do in private, but if you don’t share, what’s the point? You can do things for your own enjoyment, but if you hope to monetize the thing, or just contribute something to the world, it has to go out there.
And that’s terrifying enough to make a lot of people not even try. Or, if they do try, the give up after a short time, or keep their efforts private and settle for “good enough.” Both of these hinder the growth and improvement that the brain desperately wants. Yes, there are some people who persevere in spite of the harsh reactions from others, but how many cool things disappear or are never realized because someone was afraid of trying a new thing?
It’s sad, but we’re creating a world where we’re so afraid of failure or looking stupid that we don’t try new things. But it’s trying the new that boosts our brains and increases our skill levels. Not doing new things is detrimental to your health. It’s important to find a way to get past the fear and embrace new things. Otherwise, you end up in not-so-old age with a brain that can’t keep up and lets you down at odd moments.
I don’t have a lot of advice on how to do that because I’m one of the fearful. Every new book I write terrifies me because I’m afraid of the bad reaction. I think of things to do and don’t do them because I know I won’t be good at first. As much as I know there’s a learning curve required for anything, I’m afraid of the judgment when learning. There are plenty of ideas I want to put out there, but I refrain, afraid of being judged today and forever for learning. I guess I can say that that’s the new thing I really want to learn: How to embrace new things and not be terrified of the judgment. If I could learn that, it would open up a lifetime of new learning. My brain would be awesome!
(Photo by Austin Chan)