Have you ever asked yourself why it’s so hard to teach the proverbial “old dog” new tricks? Maybe he’s a little hard of hearing, maybe he needs a nap, or just maybe, he relies so much on his old tricks that he no longer bothers to try.
Well, for Americans at least, not trying isn’t a good option. That’s because the average life expectancy has risen to an all time high: 81.2 years for women, and 76.4 years for men. Just to give you a sense of what that’s like — 100 years ago the median lifespan was 54. That meant at age 40 you were already rounding the bend.
So yes, we’ve been given more time, but the real question isn’t so much about what to do with it, as it is about how to avoid letting our fear of change short-change us from experiencing the joy and opportunities this extra time affords.
One good way to reduce fear is to recognize it. Sure, fear comes when our lives are in actual danger; say when we’ve fallen out of a plane with no parachute, or when a hungry grizzly is chasing us through the woods.
We all recognize and respect that kind of fear, but more often, it’s the fear that’s produced by our own limbic brain, a fear about not being able to succeed in an oil painting class for example, that makes us squander the extra time we’ve been allotted for creative reinvention.
The demise of the music business from free downloading of recorded music brought on my own worries of having to re-invent myself. To help understand my own inner-critic, I gave him a face and a name. I began to refer to him as Marv.
Marv, the voice of fear
Marv is an acronym for: Majorly Afraid of Revealing Vulnerability. Whenever I was especially stressed at the pressures I was facing, both financial (I had three kids in college at one time) and personal, (I felt I’d lost a sense of my own identity), I began to see this Marv character for who he was, someone hell-bent on saving me. And whenever I’d hear him saying something withering like, “Peter, do you actually think you can write a book and start a new career at your age? You’ve gotta be kidding… you’re 52,” I found it helpful to see him less as an adversary, than as an over-worked protector.
Marv’s logic looks like this: “Peter, if you try to write a book, you could fail. And if you fail you will be ashamed — and if you are a shameful person you will be abandoned by those around you.”
And here’s where it gets deep: just as abandonment in infancy meant we could literally die, our adult experience with failure still feels as though it could kill us. That’s why we tend to resist trying new things. We actually feel a tiny degree of this mortal fear, even with something as innocuous as merely thinking about taking that painting class.
So now I’ve confirmed what you already know, that trying new things is scary stuff. But I won’t leave you there. I’ve got some practical ideas and tips that have worked for me and for many other people trying to take their lives to new and exciting places. Here are two:
• Marv will stop his negative chatter as soon as you begin (rather than continue to mull) your first steps toward your goal.
• You must, therefore, begin taking that first small step, even while you’re still nervous, or still tired, or still uninspired.
Let me be totally transparent here, only an hour ago I realized that this article you’re reading was nearing its due date. It’s currently 2:17 PM. I have a million other things to do (like swimming at the Y for example), but I need and want this article to get written. So instead of merely thinking about writing the article, I took three VERY small steps towards this particular goal, and you can do them too, with anything you wish to accomplish:
1. I sat down at my desk.
2. I turned on my timer for 10 minutes (the timer lets me off the hook. If I had to write for an hour, I’d never do it — 10 minutes of sucking… I can deal with that).
3. I began writing the first words.
I didn’t wait for inspiration, or come back to the idea of writing after I’d gone for a swim, or otherwise pushed it off into the future. I sat at my desk; I set my timer; and I began writing.
You might be thinking that this is a bit crazy. How, you ask, is this simple idea useful? I hear you. It is simple, ridiculously so. But the beauty, and dare I say the poetry of this idea, is about taking nascent thought (or in many cases, full-blown worry) and transmuting it into concrete action.
When thought goes from mere electric impulses in the brain to tangible action of any kind the world becomes a different place. The negative voices in our heads, the Marv voice I mentioned earlier, stops perceiving our ideas as threats and comes to our aid as a creative ally. What we conceive of as ‘reinvention,’ isn’t a process of gaining some profound insight; most often it’s a process of losing something, our fear of failure. The mind of the average human being is a powerful wellspring of creativity if — and only if — we give it release from Marv’s fearful voice, which in so many cases, kills off our ideas before they’ve had a chance to gain any traction at all.
Think of that thing you want to do, that thing you’re afraid to do, and then start doing one little piece of it. You’ll find old dogs can learn new tricks after all.
Peter Himmelman is a Grammy and Emmy nominated singer-songwriter, visual artist, author, film composer, entrepreneur, and rock and roll performer. He is the founder of Big Muse, a company, which helps unlock innate creativity. Clients include The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, The UCLA School of Nursing, 3M, McDonald’s, Adobe, and Gap Inc. Himmelman is also an alum of the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern. His latest book, Let Me Out (Unlock your creative mind and bring your ideas to life) was released October 2016 and is available on Random House Tarcher/Perigee
“There’s deep wisdom here along with very practical tools for translating our ideas into the real world.” — Arianna Huffington