On the Learning Edge

I’ve developed a new philosophy… I only dread one day at a time.        – Charlie Brown

If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought.   – Peace Pilgrim

It’s been three weeks since I started my new job; three weeks since I stepped into the hero’s cave to meet up with my professional fears and insecurities. And while the days have been predictably long and insanely packed, I have not turned and run back for the entrance.  That is, at least, not yet.

Fear is a close and present companion, and I ask myself at least once a day, “What have I done?” But there are some very interesting developments occurring as I travel further into the cave, picking my way around the rocks and crevasses, searching for glimmers of light that might signal knowledge and confidence ahead.

I have a companion on my journey, one I had not expected.

I just finished a novel about witches, Shadow of Night, by Deborah Harkness.  A few of the most powerful witches in this story have a familiar.  A familiar is a creature of magic and spirit, created by and from the witch, a creature who is fiercely loyal and protective of its master. The familiar is often critical in protecting a young witch as she learns how to accept and use her new powers. In some cases, the familiar nestles inside the witch, and is released either at will, or spontaneously when danger approaches.  It whispers in the witch’s ear, talks to her- even argues with her sometimes – and guides her when she otherwise cannot see or hear with her own senses.

Since I entered this new cave, I have met my own familiar. Each day when I cringe at my own ineptness, or fumble through an interaction, or look at my impossibly long list and wonder what the hell I should do next, my familiar talks to me. It doesn’t actually tell me what to do (wouldn’t that be great if it did.)  Instead, it talks to me like a coach.  It says things like, “It’s OK, you are doing fine.” “You are making progress, really, you are.” “All those other people you think could do this better? – they are really just as unsure as you.” “That’s enough for today, 15 hours is enough, time for a break.” “Just take it one day, one week, at a time.”

When I start to veer into a panic – when I feel the fear begin to paralyze my brain and body – my familiar offers me the gift of awareness. She shows me myself in the moment and prompts me to take a pulse. She (of course she is a she) reminds me to make an adjustment in my emotions, before I become unfocused.  If you are a photographer, you will appreciate the analogy of the familiar as a light meter: When shooting photographs in manual mode, the light meter tells you whether you are going to be over- or under- exposed. Manual mode means no “auto” intelligence from the camera; you are in control of everything.  It’s the equivalent of working without a net. You must adjust your shutter speed or aperture in order to bring the components back into balance.  This voice, this familiar, is serving as my own personal light meter, reminding me to check my assumptions, my settings, and bring myself back into balance. It’s a delicate dance. I can FEEL the tendency to keep moving in the negative direction, but for now, the familiar stops me.

When I start revving up my negative self-talk, highlighting the mistakes I think I’ve made, pointing out the seriousness of the cliff in front of me, my familiar offers a sweet, amazing message:  You chose this path, you took this journey, to LEARN. You wished for the opportunity to face your fears and see how far you could go.  These ARE the experiences you need to answer those questions. The journey IS the destination. This is it. Enjoy it.

The edge of our comfort zone is sometimes called the learning edge. When we are at the edge of our personal comfort zone, it feels painful, but paradoxically, this is when we are most open to expanding our knowledge and understanding. The challenge is to recognize when we are on a learning edge and then to stay there with the discomfort we are experiencing to see what we can learn.  In fact, some say that “Life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.”

I don’t know how long this familiar will stay with me. I fear waking up one day soon, stepping into the daily precipice- either real or imagined – and being swept away by doubt, with nothing to hold me aloft.  I know the day will come soon when I will royally screw up something in this job, or piss off someone very senior. The negative blowback will be strong enough to take all the wind out of my sails, to effectively silence my familiar.  And I doubt they will put, “She boldly stayed balanced on her learning edge”, on my annual performance evaluation.

But performance evaluation results aside, my first lesson in this journey has been how powerful an ally positive self-talk can be.  My rational, logical mind used to scoff at ‘the power of positivity”.  Those who advocated it often seemed to have an incredibly simplistic, “rose-colored glasses” view of reality, woefully ignorant of all the facts. But who knew that they were really practicing an age-old practice, one that connected into the mysterious, base secret of energy.  And that secret is this: positive energy DISRUPTS a downward spiral. When you anticipate a positive present and future, everything TILTS in that direction. It just takes rebalancing via the internal light meter, for every shot, with every moment.

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