A silver haired, curmudgeonly man approached me under the fluorescent lights of a Publix grocery store, two decades ago. He asked me where he could find hearing aid batteries. I had no idea. I was only a week or two into my new job as a cashier and customer service associate. I only knew where baby diapers were, and that’s because we were standing right in front of them. He seemed irritated with my ignorance, which filled me with anxiety disproportionate to the situation.
I remember wanting to quit. I wanted to quit a dozen times, because I felt foolish not having the answer. Over time, I went on to master the entire product catalog of that store, learning to identify merchandise placement in every department, aisle, and shelf. At that point, I was ready to move to something new, and the learning curve pattern started over again. This stubborn pattern emerges with every single job, life stage, and hobby I take on. I wanted to quit at my first marketing job out of college, I wanted to quit at my first challenge as a people manager, I wanted to quit when new motherhood felt too painful, when my finances were disastrous. But the reality of the learning curve applies to all undertakings, no matter your age or station.
There’s nothing in the life that doesn’t have a learning curve. You’re not born with any skill set that doesn’t require at least some degree of effort, save for pooping and sleeping – and any honest adult will admit that there’s a new learning curve to both of those things starting at some point in your mid-30s.
Fortunately, I’m learning to relish the uphill trudge rather than use it as an excuse to flake out.
Today, I find no excitement or beauty in stories of coasting or ease of acclimation. I’m attracted to humans struggling along the learning curve, who are demonstrating sweaty effort and the emotions of intermittent failure. I love encouraging the new barista behind the Starbucks register, trying to figure out how to hit all the right buttons to process some dude’s half-caff, two-pump monstrosity. I love when my daughter collapses on my bed at 8:30 PM because she just can’t solve the math problem. I giddily adjust two sets of fluffy pillows on which will put our heads together to figure it out. I love to massage the shoulders of bloody nippled friends who have just birthed their babies, giving them the same rah-rah pep of a boxing coach in the corner of the ring.
Slogging through intellectual, emotional, or physical resistance is the kind of rich human experience that we have to embrace, because it’s a requirement of anything worth doing. Any endeavor that is too easy feels like a total cheat.
Parents are pressured to give their children a range of extracurricular experiences – you know, to see what sticks. Team sports, music, performance, visual arts… we plop these kids into a million park district and school-sponsored activities and prod them along their own learning curves. “You won’t be any good if you don’t practice!” “It’s important to commit for the good of the team!” “How do you know if you will be any good if you don’t give it a try?” We wipe away their tears when they don’t make the team, telling them that the fact that they made the effort is even more noble than becoming the captain.
Why do we act as if this vulnerable experimentation only applies to children? If anyone needs an extracurricular, it’s Carol in Accounting, who risks spending the next 20 years being defined by a single set of circumstances instead of the full spectrum of possibilities that she fails to pursue. Over the past 10 years since I’ve become a mom and a career woman, I’ve joined a recreational roller derby league, studied comedy writing, formed a comedy troupe, experimented with stand-up, done kickboxing, joined more than one book club, attempted ink sketching, put myself in front of cameras at work, and started a blog. In all of these moments, I felt like a fumbling rookie, just a few strides onto a steep learning curve that I had zero confidence I’d be able to surmount. This was true in a few cases, but a total underestimation in other cases.
We were not put on this earth to coast through the motions. We were put here to live. I’d rather be perpetually powering towards my aspirations as a member of the junior varsity than being bored at the top of varsity.
There’s satisfaction in being at the top of your game, but there’s exhilarating joy in being the eternal rookie. Here’s to trying new things, potential failure be damned. As far as I’m concerned, there’s more sexiness in the effort than the success.
In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”