Branching Out

January 19th, 2006 by Steve Pavlina

One of the most basic ways to grow as a human being is to try something new. Do something you’ve never done before.

New situations challenge us. Our brains have to work at full capacity to understand new patterns instead of just rerunning old ones. In completely new situations, we’re like fish out of water. It may feel uncomfortable and awkward, and our performance will probably be lousy. But this is a terrific way to grow. This is the kind of challenge our neural nets were made for.

How much newness do you experience in your life? Are you frequently meeting new people, finding yourself in new situations, and getting out of your comfort zone? Are you doing things that make you feel awkward?

One of my favorite expressions is: There never was a winner who wasn’t at some point a beginner. I first heard it from Denis Waitley. This is a great reminder that if we wish to grow, we have to endure that awkward beginner phase.

I remember the first speech I gave in Toastmasters in the Summer of 2004. I thought it was a pretty good speech. Now I look back on it and shudder at how bad it was, at least compared to what I’m capable of doing now. I was not a natural at speaking. I had to work very hard to become decent at it. I’ve invested hundreds of hours on developing my speaking skills since then, and I still have a lot more work to do. The 90-minute workshop I delivered on Monday took me about 30 hours to prepare. That’s a lot of time to invest in a presentation that will only be delivered once for free, but I did it mainly for the experience and to help other people stretch themselves as well. People in Toastmasters who compete at the top level of the International Speech Contest will frequently spend hundreds of hours refining a single 7-minute speech.

I’ve gotten many compliments on my writing, especially this year, but I wasn’t born a good writer. I remember my first writing assignment as a freshman in high school English. I thought I did a pretty good job on it, and I was shocked when it came back with a C+. I had always gotten As and Bs in elementary school. But my high school English teacher had much higher standards. I had him for two years, and I had to work really hard to earn an A in his class, but that’s where I really learned to write.

In high school I was far more interested in computers than I was in writing. Even then I knew I wanted to be a computer programmer. But I thought it might be good to develop my writing skills too, just in case. Instead of telling myself, “I’m never going to use this,” I thought, “This might come in handy some day.” That attitude helped me earn As in every class, and I took every honors class that was offered. I also served as captain of my school’s first Academic Decathlon team and President of the Math Club because I thought some leadership experience might be useful to me later, and that turned out to be true as well.

Instead of saying, “I’m never going to use this,” say to yourself, “This might come in handy some day.” I’ve found ways to combine skills in ways I never anticipated at the time I first learned them. For example, I taught myself to juggle when I was a teenager. Juggling takes a lot of practice to learn, but once you learn it, it’s like riding a bicycle — it becomes a skill you’ll always have. Last year I was giving a speech that opened with a story about juggling different parts of our lives, so I juggled some tennis balls as I told the story. It went over well and gave the story a stronger impact.

Two of my most well-developed skills are writing and computer programming. I can communicate equally well with both humans and computers, and I’m just as comfortable typing in English as I am in PHP or C++. I can write about technology and programming, and I can also use my programming skills to create the vehicle for my writing (this web site). Plus I’ve been using the Internet since 1989, long before the days of the web, so I have lots of experience with online technology. Together these skills allow me to do things that would be much harder or more costly to achieve if I focused on only one primary skill set.

Sometimes I almost randomly pick something I don’t know much about and then just dive in and learn it. If it doesn’t hold my interest, I’ll stop after learning the basics and move onto something else. But if I like it, I’ll stick with it for a while. It’s possible to learn very quickly if you can get past the fear of being a beginner. I give myself permission to completely suck for a while whenever I try something new. By making it OK to be a beginner, I remain open to learning. No matter how good my skills get in any area of life, I never allow myself to think of myself as too much of an expert on anything. I don’t let my ego get wrapped up in my results. Ego just gets in the way of learning. When you tell yourself you’re an expert, you close your mind to many learning experiences.

Some of the things I’ve learned (to various degrees of skills) include: Tae Kwon Do, feng shui, wine tasting, tennis, distance running, weight training, raw gourmet cooking, French, game design & programming, computer animation, database design, web site development, search engine optimization, marketing, selling, intellectual property law, optimization, leadership, planning, organizing, advanced math, physics, philosophy, relationships, investing, humor, public speaking, meditation, podcasting, sound effects editing, business, nutrition, first aid & CPR, camping, archery, model rocketry, RC car racing, wilderness survival, mythology, role-playing, electrical engineering, and obviously personal development. I’m insatiably curious.

I’m going to an improv comedy show tonight, and if I like what I see, I’ll sign up to take some improv comedy classes. When I see a show like Whose Line Is It Anyway? I’m amazed at how those people can come up with funny things to say off the top of their heads, especially in front of an audience. We did some improv exercises in Toastmasters (since a couple members belong to the Vegas improv group), and I found them very challenging. Imagine having to make up a song in front of an audience in a matter of seconds. I figure that if I can learn to do that, everything else I do with respect to public speaking will seem much easier.

When you keep branching out and learning new things, especially those that are a real stretch for you, you also develop the skill of learning itself. And that’s an extremely potent skill to have. I’ve been through this process so many times that I’m able to learn new things very quickly now. No matter what I attempt, I’m never any good when I first start out. My initial performance is no better than anyone else’s, and sometimes it’s horrific. I don’t seem to be a natural at anything. But I try to move quickly in the beginning and get those first several attempts out of the way. This gives me a long list of things I need to correct. I go to work on those elements via private practice until I feel I’ve just risen above the level of total idiot. Then more performing, more feedback, and more private practice. The faster I cycle, the sooner I develop some basic competence.

Ego has no place in this process. It’s perfectly OK to be bad at something. If you aren’t doing things you suck at, you aren’t challenging yourself enough. Go out and have some fun failing. What I enjoy about failing in group activities is that I get to watch other people succeed. I revel in other people’s talents. For example, while I’m almost certainly going to stink at improv comedy when I first attempt it, at least I’ll enjoy a lot of laughs from watching the other skilled performers. When I was a yellow belt in Tae Kwon Do and just learning to spar, I got to watch some wonderful matches between black belts. When I first joined Toastmasters, I got to see some great speeches, even when my own were rather dull. So if you’re going to stink for a while, perhaps you can at least be entertained.

I love watching talented people perform at their best. They serve as an inspiration for me to do better.

If there’s one thing I want to be the best in the world at, it would be growth itself. I’m excited by all the new things I’ve yet to experience on this planet. Some of the things I’d love to try but have never done include skydiving, parasailing, bungee jumping, scuba diving, race car driving, and rock climbing.

I hope my insurance agent isn’t reading this. :)

Don’t allow yourself to become complacent. Complacency is a horrible thing to do with a human life. As Earl Nightingale said, we humans shouldn’t be settled. We need to keep things stirred up.

All it takes to get started with something new is a phone call or an email. Just think of someone you know who’s doing something remotely interesting, and tell that person, “I’d love to give X a try. Can you help me get started?” Don’t put it off. Pick up the phone or start typing an email right now. What you decide to try isn’t as important as that you simply try something. Try anything.

There’s more to life than your cubicle. Don’t be a Dilbert. Leave the comfort of your cozy bear cave every now and then. Soak up some sun.



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