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Ira Glass, the bespectacled host of NPR’s “This American Life,” delivered a lecture titled “Seven Things I’ve Learned.” It’s a credit to my aging brain that I can remember even a few of those seven things, but among them was the simple “Try things.
In his segment about trying things, he used two videos to illustrate how they had experimented with trying new things on This American Life.
The first was a segment where they used a story from This American Life to animate a New Yorker Cover.
The other was when they enlisted Lin-Manuel Miranda to do a “fifteen-minute-musical” from one of the show’s stories. He chose a segment called “21 Chump Street,” and this was the result: 1
Try things. An intuition that seems so obvious — but is it? How many of us are reluctant to try new things? How often do people, at some point, stop trying new things and get stuck in a rut?
Of course, your internal critic might say, it’s easy for a radio show/podcast with a budget to try things! And, then, that inner critic might go on to tell you all the reasons why you “shouldn’t” or can’t try this new thing.
Of course, you don’t need to try everything, and there are some things you shouldn’t try. Sometimes that inner critic is correct, and maybe you shouldn’t try that thing that suddenly pops into your head. 2
But often, it’s fear that keeps us from trying new things we might genuinely want to try. Something that might be good for us or help us grow in some way. We ask ourselves “what ifs,” thinking of the worst possible scenario instead of the best possible scenario..
“What if I get in front of this audience and my mind goes blank and I forget everything I’m going to say and everyone laughs at me and I look like an idiot and then I have to hide in my room in shame for a month and…?” instead of, “What if I get up there and speak and I take one step toward getting less nervous speaking in public and it leads to new things?”
“What if I start writing and my book (or blog or article) sucks and nobody reads it and I’ve wasted all this time and…?” An alternative way of looking at this might be, “What if I never write this thing and suddenly it’s 20 years later and I’m thinking ‘What if?’ And I enjoy writing so even if I write the worst novel in the world, it’s not a total waste of time.”
Of course, when you try a new thing, you might (and probably will be) bad at it at first (Ira Glass touched on this a bit in his talk to on his early days with NPR). You need to be fully willing to embrace this badness to work your way toward okay-ness, proficiency, and then, perhaps, excellence. Or you might find, after all, that the thing you’re trying is really not your thing — but at least you tried and learned something about yourself in the process.
And you don’t need to go “all-in” to try something. Baby steps are OK! Tiptoeing into the unknown is often more comfortable than jumping into the dark and screaming, “Here I am!” You can always go all in later when you find the things you find satisfying (or profitable, or helpful.)
Some danger exists in being a “serial trier.” Most languages have idioms about people who spread themselves too thin and gain a superficial skill or understanding in many areas.
In English, we have “Jack of all trades, and a master of none.” In French, there’s “Bon à tout bon à rien” 3 — meaning “Good at all, good at nothing.”
It’s possible to spend much of your life trying a series of new things. That’s OK if that’s what you want to do — but it takes practice to develop a skill in something. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the notion that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to get good at something. I have my doubts about that statistic, but if you’re trying one thing after another and skimming the surface, you might deprive yourself of becoming an expert at that one thing.
I say this as a serial trier myself. I wrote in an article once, many years ago, about the value of picking that one thing and then blatantly failed to live up to my advice. I’m easily distracted. 4 I want to do the following things: photography, crafts, writing, guitar, cycling, piano, hiking, camping, meditation, write a book, write a blog, travel–the list goes on. But it does make for lack of focus. The flip side of this is that it’s OK not to try something or even quit something, so you have the time and energy to devote to something else.
A Zen teacher I know once ended a talk with the statement, “Say, profoundly, “YES!” Some of us close ourselves down and say “no” much too often and, doing so, shut out new possibilities. But saying “yes” to life and having a sense of openmindedness towards new things doesn’t mean that we have to be like Jim Carrey in Yes Man and say “yes” to everything that comes our way. I choose, for instance, to say “no” to skydiving. It’s not something I think would vastly improve my life. But getting on a plane alone to go to a country where I didn’t speak the language for the first time? Scary, but worth it!
A wise Jedi master 5 famously said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” I am not sure I agree. There is a thing called “trying.” It allows you to test something and see if it fits. I am sure that what Yoda meant if he were a real…whatever he is… was speaking from the idea of throwing yourself completely into whatever you’re doing. There’s a sense that if you’re “trying” something, you’re pulling back, sticking your toe in, and testing the waters instead of immersing yourself completely. But, sometimes, we do want to test the waters. I’ve sometimes plunged headfirst into things I wish I had not.
Overall, keeping an attitude of being open to novelty is a good approach to life, in general.
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- Note that he only showed a small portion of this during his lecture. This is the entire segment.
- In part, this blog is here because of my tendency to do that when it comes to blog ideas. I almost named it Tryitspace and, perhaps, I should have. A place to put some of those, ideas — for better or worse — without starting yet another new blog for which I don’t have sufficient time.
- Sometimes “touche à tout, touche à rien” meaning, literally, “touch all, touch nothing.”
- Maybe that’s one of the reasons I practice meditation — to help myself focus a bit better.
- Maybe this will be yet another quote post.