Old Dog, New Tricks

Growth = trying hard at something hard

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

We are all being tempered by the times we live in

As a verb, the word “temper” has two meanings: to improve the hardness and elasticity of metal, and to act as a counterbalancing force to something else — as in, hope tempered by realism.

Living through a global pandemic that has disrupted so much we formerly took for granted, from sending our kids off to school while we prepared for our morning commute, to casual socializing after work, to even having a job or a stable income at all anymore. All of which is compounded if you live in a country like the U.S. with a floundering leader who is only able to dish out more denial, division, and deflection of responsibility instead of offering any actual, helpful guidance.

Add to that an agonizing reckoning with the darkest forces in our nation’s character — systemic racism stemming from our inability to confront and integrate the abomination of slavery, so aptly named America’s Original Sinby the preacher and activist Jim Wallis — and we have all been, to one degree or another, stumbling along a dark and arduous passage.

And we’re nowhere near the end of the tunnel yet

Despite our touted reopening and our Fearful Leader’s blathering about the Great American Comeback, every thinking person knows that the way forward is perilous and rife with the uncertainty with which we’ve all been struggling — and that is true on multiple levels, from public health to environmental sustainability to social justice.

When going through tough times, it’s natural to seek comfort where we can. Reams have been written about our quarantine-baking and Netflix-bingeing and whatever else we’ve done to distract ourselves these past bewildering months. None of that’s bad; in fact, a lot of it is creative and admirable.

But we’ve been at this long enough now to adapt, and at some point being gentle with ourselves gets us only so far. Our self-care needs to be tempered with self-demand, to keep us from scuttling back into our comfortable havens when faced with a challenge. In times like these, we need to prove to ourselves that we’ve got what it takes.

That will look different for different people. It can be protest or activism, whether on the streets or on social media or in writing, or some combination. It can be volunteer work or making art in service to a cause or statement. It can be building up one’s physical and mental strength. It can be taking on the challenge of expanding your knowledge base, of reading and learning unfamiliar, perhaps unsettling, things.

It can mean learning a new — really new — skill

Whatever you do to challenge yourself, it’s going to be somewhere outside your comfort zone. And pretty much anything you do to push past the borders of that zone is going to make you stronger and better able to make your unique contribution to the world.

At the moment, I’m learning audiobook narration. Don’t laugh; for me, this is as bold a step as it would be for someone else to take up alligator wrestling. I promise this is not a how-to article, because I’m nowhere near being in a position to offer instruction. In the discipline of book narration, I am a white belt. The point is that this is a pursuit that has long fascinated me as much as it has daunted me. Which makes it perfect for pushing me to my growth edge.

I love to read aloud — story time was an institution while my kids were growing up — and my crazy-quilt resume includes professional acting, with some voiceover work as a subset of that. I’ve also done volunteer audiobook recordings for visually impaired and dyslexic people. Plus I’ve taught English and I am a writer, so there’s that. In that sense, I’m eager and willing.

But all the voiceover and narration work I’ve done has been in a professional studio with a lovely, easy-to-navigate setup that I didn’t have to understand much about to use. Nor was I responsible for mastering and producing the finished sound files. All of that involves technology, you see, and I have believed from earliest childhood that technology — along with its even more frightening cousin, mathematics — is a kingdom into which I dare not tread.

How I developed that notion is beside the point

Let’s just say that I could have been the poster child for the concept of a fixed mindset. There were things I was good at and things I was not good at, and that’s just the way it was, so it behooved me to stick to the things I could do well and avoid embarrassment by attempting anything outside my zone.

It’s only been within the past few years that I’ve run into the concept of growth mindset, a foundational idea in modern educational reform. The idea that the abilities I’d been born with were simply a starting point rather than a set of boundaries was a quiet revelation. Adopting a growth mindset means believing that with hard work and perseverance, you can become smarter and more capable, even at things that don’t come easily.

In this mindset, challenges and failures are learning opportunities instead of delimiters. They don’t prove you can’t do it; they simply mean you might need more time, or to find a different way to tackle the problem.

If that concept had been operational in the schools I went to like it is in the school where I work now, I might actually have been able to do math. Which means I might have gotten a lot farther in science, which I always liked but was afraid to take courses in other than biology. Biology required memorization, which I was good at. Chemistry and physics meant numbers and formulas, promising humiliating failure. Why even try?

Overcoming obsolete beliefs

Getting past your limiting, fixed-mindset beliefs means plowing past the old scripts running in your head. In my case, it meant ignoring the anxious rumbles in my stomach as I signed up for an online course, spent good money on basic audio equipment, and set forth on learning how to use both the hardware and software involved in recording, editing, and mastering.

Trust me, I’m still a noob. But I’m determined, and after a few weeks of effort, I now know about things like noise floor and gate speed, equalization and kbps rates. I haven’t mastered punch-and-roll yet, but I’m getting there, and I can assure you it has nothing to do with martial arts.

It hasn’t been a smooth process. I keep running into quandaries and obstacles. The difference is that instead of throwing in the towel or assuming I can’t figure it out on my own, I pick each problem to pieces until I get past it, no matter how long it takes. Of course I have instruction; there are the lessons in my course to refer to, and the instructor is good about answering emails. And there is a wealth of information and YouTube tutorials out there on the Interwebs. 

One of the most surprising — and oddly delightful — aspects of this process has been how deeply I’ve become absorbed in it. Once I disappear into my homemade recording studio (aka my walk-in closet, outfitted with my equipment set up on portable tables), I lose track of time as I test and practice and test again, accumulating kernels of knowledge and competency along the way like one of those decorator crabs that continually enhance themselves by sticking bits of stuff to their shells. 

I expected to be challenged, and tested, and frustrated when I began this effort, and I certainly have been. What I didn’t expect was to discover a portal to a pleasurable and satisfying state of flow. Nor did I anticipate the sense of new possibilities I’m experiencing. After all, if I can figure out bit rate, who knows what else I’m capable of?

Growth, however modest, makes us stronger

This is a hard time, a painful time, but if we can meet it with resolve and resilience, tempered rather than shattered by our experience, it’s a time that can lead us to the next horizon. Whatever we do to strengthen our minds and muscles, our souls and spirits, even if it’s not the cure for COVID-19 or the eradication of racism, can help prepare us for larger things. That’s my belief, and my hope.

Maybe I’ll take a math class next.

6 Replies to “Old Dog, New Tricks”

  1. Hannah

    Very moving post, Jan! That’s really cool that you have professional acting experience! And I really like the idea of a “growth mindset” – especially during these unprecedented times, that seems necessary. I’ve been working on some challenging data analysis recently, and one of the things that helps me stay motivated is to remind myself that I’m capable of doing hard things – I guess this was growth mindset without realizing it!

    • Jan M Flynn Post author

      Wow, Hannah, the very phrase “data analysis” intimidates me . . . so, YEAH, you’ve got a growth mindset going on there. Cheers!

  2. Ana Manwaring

    OMG! I felt exactly the same way about math. And I wanted to explore some science too, but didn’t because of the math. Ok, Jan, if you can learn audio recording, I can follow your lead and learn mastery of MailChimp! Good post.
    It’s a new world and we do need new skills!

  3. Laurie

    Wow! Good for you, Jan. I am so impressed and excited at the prospect of someday “reading” an audiobook narrated by you! I have no idea what punch and roll is but I am visualizing some very interesting possibilities.

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