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Making hard new things feel as easy as going to the grocery store

I asked my husband, Jason, “It’s the last morning of our Gap Year. Do you think we’ve changed?” Our family has just spent the past fourteen months living, working, and schooling all around the world -- Rome, Paris, Auckland, Istanbul, Cairo, and many more. We called it the Salter Gap Year. We got back home just in time for the kids start school this week.

“Like did we achieve our goals?”

“No.” I replied. Our goals – grow closer as a family, experience the world, make unforgettable memories – were definitely achieved. I knew that. I could feel it. “I mean did you change and grow as a person?”

Jason said, “I gained 10 pounds.”

I laughed and patted his belly, full of last night’s meal – Schezwan spicy goodness and airy Taiwanese shaved snow. “Yeah that.”

We were both quiet for a moment. Jason tentatively began, “Well, I was full of worries, anxiety, and fear of the unknown at the beginning. Now it’s like going to the grocery store. Traveling and living around the world with our family now is no big deal.”

He paused. I could feel the gears turning in his head before he continued. “Like before we struck out, it was like going to the grocery store without ever having gone before. How do you get through the doors? Where can I find the stuff I need? What if I can’t read the labels? What if I do something really inappropriate and everyone starts staring at me? How do I check out? What do you mean only 10 items in this line! Was there a sign? How do I pay? Will my credit card work?” He paused. “Before we set out, it felt big and scary, almost impossible. Now it’s easy, like going to the grocery store.”

“Yes.” I agreed. “Like before we went, I didn’t know if I could home school the kids and work. We didn’t know if we saved enough money. What if we all hated each other at the end of it? All sorts of fears and worries. Now, it’s easy. I feel like in a week we could pack up and go to a different country for two months and it’d be no big deal, like going to the grocery store.”

That’s the thing with trying new things and growing new habits. At first, new behaviors are really hard, awkward, and scary. Kids do new things all the time but as adults, it can become paralyzingly scary to face the unknown. Uncertainty is as huge and terrifying as a deep sea kraken, tentacles pulling you screaming below the waves into darkness. Hard new things can send us into an abyss of vulnerability and worry. We can’t depend on history or experience. Yes, it’s scary.

Brene Brown calls hard new things FFTs (fucking first times). She says, “The more we’re willing to embrace the suck and try new things, the more new things we’re willing to try. And it’s not because being new gets comfortable, it’s because we learn how to normalize discomfort. If there’s one thing I know for sure, normalizing discomfort, learning how to stay standing in the midst of feeling unsure and uncertain, that’s the foundation of courage.”

The thing is, with experience, hard new things become easy everyday things, just as routine as going to the grocery store.

For instance, I took my son, age 14, to his first on-campus, community college class today. This morning, he was stressed and nervous full of unspoken anxiety at being just a high school kid amongst adults at a new school. He almost didn't get out of bed but with enough positive encouragement, we got him to the car. We spent a little time before class started getting familiar with the campus. There’s the cafeteria. The bookstore. The Starbucks. The library. The all important bathrooms. By the time he entered the lecture hall, he was fine. Not calm and confident, but ready and settled. Next week, it’ll be like going to the grocery store.

I was having an FFT myself. The mom feeling I had was not unlike dropping my son off at kindergarten for the first time – heart bursting with pride but also breaking into pieces at exactly the same moment. I’m sure a million parents across the world are feeling the same as they send their kids off to kindergarten, high school, college, and the larger world beyond. That first time, kindergarten, is really really hard. Everything is uncertain and new. But soon it’s no big deal. Take my son’s first day of first grade, with a year of experience at that school under his belt. As we walked past the admin building I said, “Let me drop my bag off in my office and then I’ll walk you in.”

Owen responds, “That’s okay mom. I got this.” He walked off down the hallway to his new classroom, easy as you please. And it was easy for me to leave him at the college doors because I'd already left him at the doors of kindergarten and high school, and seen him navigate through cities all over the world.

So remember, FFTs are hard, but it gets easier over time. Here’s five things you can do to make growing hard new things easier.

  1. Name it. Acknowledge to yourself that this is an FFT and name whatever unique combination of emotions happen to be present for you. For me with Gap Year, it was fear, anxiety, and anticipation. Just the act of acknowledging what this is for you and naming the emotions has been shown by the research to significantly improve outcomes.

  2. Treat your stress response with kindness. Hard new things send our nervous system into a full fledged stress response. As the Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy says in large friendly letters on the cover, “DON’T PANIC!” We all know what happens with stress: fight, flee, or freeze. We armor up and get all defensive and argumentative. Or we flee and quit after one half-hearted attempt. Or we freeze and don’t do anything at all. Instead, do the things that work best for you to calm your stress response – breathing, exercise, nature, music, brain breaks. Don't panic. It's an FFT not brain surgery (unless you're a neurosurgeon).

  3. Play the long game. Remember, you’ve done hard new things before and survived, even succeeded. Just because it’s cringey and terrifying, doesn’t mean that’s the way it will always be. Just because I suck at it now, that doesn’t mean I suck at everything or won’t ever learn how to get better. To play the long game means remembering that this is just one FFT in a long string of them all through our lives, AND we’ve survived every single one of them, AND most importantly that we’ve learned something and grown more resilient from each of them. Which brings us to…

  4. Adopt a learner’s mindset. Albert Einstein said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” Hard new things will undoubtedly come with making mistakes. But mistakes are how we learn and grow as human beings. When we acknowledge that we’re learners in this situation, not experienced leaders like usual, it’s easier to ask for and receive help. It’s easier to accept our own mistakes and learn from them, rather than feel shamed by them. And it’s easier to allow ourselves to grow.

  5. Remember it. When the new habit becomes as easy as going to the grocery store, it’ll feel effortless and routine. It’ll become hard to even remember that the hard new thing was ever a challenge. It used to take a month of intensive research to design a packing list for the family before we left on a trip: making lists, rewriting them, shopping, rewriting the list again, setting things out, a suitcase trial run, the inevitable moment realizing it'll never fit, crossing things off, repacking three times, and then departing only to realize that we didn’t need half of what we brought. Now, my kids can pack independently for a two month overseas trip on their own with virtually no supervision. It’s hard to remember how hard it once was, but it’s important to remind oneself of the lessons learned, otherwise, we retain the expectation that others will find it as easy as it is now. Moreover, if we don’t remind ourselves of where we once were, we become complacent with ease and stop trying new things.

So… what new hard things are we adopting now that we are home to avoid getting complacent? The whole family is working together to preserve and protect some of the new behaviors we adopted and loved while traveling. Jason and I made a pact to start most mornings together with a walk before the kids are up. All of us want to be more present to the real world around us, and less engaged with our screens. Thus, we are planning to keep our phones in the kitchen or at our desks at night, away from our beds, and have pledged to one another to not use screens as a way to zone out during the week. Bring on the books, puzzles, games, friends, walks, cooking, pets, and gardening. (Next post will likely be all about that experiment!)

Read more

FFTs might be my favorite podcast episode of all time from Brene Brown.

If you think that naming your emotions and acknowledging what’s going on for you is too namby pamby for busy leaders, think again. This is a wonderful article in the New York Times on the importance of naming and sharing how we are feeling in the business world.

Finally, DON’T PANIC! There are many ways to manage your stress response from using brain breaks, short 20 second to 2 minute interventions to reset your brain to longer term stress relievers.

Going Further

If you love this article, consider subscribing to my blog. This article draws from a book I'm writing that explores the science behind why travel makes us come alive, and to learn how to come alive without ever wandering further than a day’s journey from home.

If you are longing for a private, safe haven to navigate your very own FFT, reach out ASAP. I’d love to help you develop the insight, mindset, and perspective you need to make whatever hard new thing you happen to be facing feel as easy as going to the grocery store.

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