On Learning

Confession No. 04: I love learning. (One could even say I’m a nerd.)

From the time I was very young, I have been fascinated by many things. I think this is partially due to the fact that I grew up with a father who relaxes by expanding his brain – my dad loves to watch home and cooking shows as well as documentaries on TV, so I grew up watching HGTV more than Family channel, often missing the shows my peers loved to watch.

Before we even began learning the basic principles of multiplication in school, my father was teaching me my times-tables. I loved every research project I was assigned in class, especially when I had a say in the specific topic I would learn about. I would spend hours and hours finding recipes and exercise programs for girls I was coaching and loved to out try new recipes when I had the chance. Around the time I was sixteen, I began reading non-fiction books for fun because, why not?

Over the years, I have accumulated an assortment of facts and knowledge. You never know when a piece of information will come in handy, so I try to soak up as much as I can.

For me, research is relaxing. I am being productive (I tell myself) because even if I don’t use the information for this specific task, I am building my brain muscles and creating new connections between neurons. I love to discover the links between seemingly disparate ideas and pull them together in a way that makes them easier to understand. It is extremely satisfying, this kind of work, and I am lucky enough to get to do it every day.

One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received came when I read Liz Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. Gilbert encourages readers to “follow their curiosities” and explains what this looks like in her own life. In this conversation with podcast host Jonathan Fields, Gilbert explains how people often think the opposite of depression is happiness, but it’s not. The opposite of depression is curiosity. The moment you stop believing that tomorrow will be any different from today, that is the moment you will lose your zest for life. Each day is a beautiful opportunity to learn something new, but it’s so easy to forget that.

The truth is, you will never know all there is to know.

I find this fact simultaneously thrilling, humbling, and utterly inspiring. If I will never know all there is to know, then there will always be something new for me to discover tomorrow. Your learning doesn’t stop when your formal education does; in fact, that is when the real learning begins.

This is not to say I have always loved the process of learning – there have been many times when I definitely have not. I am, by nature, a bit of a perfectionist, and learning can be quite messy at times. I have always had a bit of an aversion to being judged for my learning because I hate feeling like I’ve failed. I can’t say I hated tests and exams because I loved the feeling of satisfaction I got when I did well, but I definitely did not enjoy the criticism that came when I did not. Then again, I don’t think anyone does.

I did well in school because I paid attention in class and often found the subjects quite interesting. If I found the teacher boring or I didn’t understand what they were talking about, I would just do the research on my own. I didn’t really mind taking tests, but the minute my grades slipped below ninety, I would cringe; below eighty, I told myself to work harder – that wasn’t good enough.

Perfection was my highest goal, but that shouldn’t have been my focus. That is not what learning is about.

Learning is the process of growing, of becoming wiser and stronger than you were the day before. Everyone learns in different ways, and I’ve always learned best by doing things for myself. A teacher can speak for hours about a subject, but those formulas and theories will mean nothing to mean until I put them to use. I learned early on that I remembered things better if I wrote them down. The best way for me to understand a language or equation was for me to smash it into bite-sized pieces and repeat the steps over and over again.

These are the strategies that work best for me, but what works for me will not work for everyone. I was able to do well in school because I did the work and figured out how I learn best. This is not the case for many people, however, and it frustrates me to think there are people who leave school thinking they’re stupid. No person on earth is truly stupid – we are all intelligent in our own way.

For the last few centuries, we’ve spent our time focused on the wrong question. The question shouldn’t be, “are you smart?” based on some grades on a paper somewhere. School should be about helping each child discover their strengths and the places they need to improve. The question we should be asking is, “How are you smart, and how can the world benefit from that?”

Sometimes I forget my love of learning. Sometimes I can only see all the ways in which life is hard. It’s easy to become overwhelmed by the sheer number of things I do not know and the uncertainty that goes along with being a new adult. But if I have learned one thing, it is this: no one ever really has everything figured out.

You can look at a stranger and think they have a perfect life, that everything must be so easy and they know exactly where they’re going – but I can almost guarantee this is a lie. You don’t know their whole story. The masters know the secret to mastery is to maintain a beginners mind. The more you learn, the more you understand there is so much more to learn, and so you must remain humbly open to anyone who might teach you something as you journey along your path.

As we approach the beginning of autumn and the start of a new school year, I have to admit it’s a little strange not to be heading back to school. The structure and safety of being in school are, in some ways, all I’ve ever known. They are things you take for granted until you step out into the real world and realize there is so much more at stake. Once you graduate from school, you are responsible for your one precious life. No one will make things happen for you if you are never willing to take the first step.

Sometimes, taking the first step means stumbling. Sometimes it means falling flat on your face. Notice I did not say that taking the first step can lead to failure because you never truly fail until you give up. If you learned something from the experience, you did not fail – you only added to your knowledge of what not to do next time.

These days, my days are filled to the brim with learning: learning about myself and my work and my world, how to process pain and cultivate joy and what it is to be alive on this planet that is just bursting with life.

It’s a beautiful thing, this kind of learning, no matter how challenging it may be. I wouldn’t exchange it for anything in the world. Every day is an adventure when you are acting as your own tour guide because the value lies not in the place you are going but rather the person you become along the way.

So take the time to enjoy your journey and rest assured – one step at a time, you will get where you are going one day.

Chapters of Life

So much can happen in a single year of life.

I will never cease to be amazed by this simple fact. You can look out on a fresh year sitting before you, be inspired by the possibility and take your first steps in a certain direction – but there is absolutely no way to know what will happen next. No way! How foolish we are to think the universe will bend to fulfill our meticulously laid plans. Our intentions and deepest aspirations can manifest themselves in our lives if we hold them deeply in our hearts and do the work required to make it happen, but they will most often not show up in the package we first expect.

Certain points in our lives invite reflection on what has come before as we anticipate for what will happen next. We sense one chapter coming to an end and another about to begin, and time seems to slow out of reverence for the preciousness of life.

I have found myself in one of these periods most recently. This time of year has held significance for me for a long time, as it has always been the end of the school year and competitive season of gymnastics, a time for slowing down and simply being a kid. Last year held even more importance than normal: I had officially graduated high school, and it was time to enter the real world as an “adult.”

And so eleven months ago, I took a huge leap and stepped out on my own. I moved to a new city to attend the school of my dreams and left behind the familiarity of my childhood home in favour of adventure. This year proved to me that our late teens and early twenties are a time of great discovery. It is a time of firsts, irrational decision-making and a perpetually heightened emotional state. I’ve never much been a fan of failing or messiness, but it seems to be utterly unavoidable at this time of life. I have been on an impressive rollercoaster this last year, let me tell you. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. Life is quite the ride.

I look back now and feel as thought I am a completely different person from when I first stepped off that plane into the stifling heat of July.

It was the first one-way trip I’d ever taken, and the feelings were bittersweet. I remember journaling as we flew through the air several thousand feet above the ground. I was starting a new journal, and I wanted every word to be perfect. Still, to this day I cannot think of a word to describe the unique blend of sadness, fear, and exhilaration that tags along when you move to a new place. Leaving behind the people I’d grown up this was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but I knew it was what I had to do. Something in my gut told me I was making the right move.

For the first six months, I existed in disbelief and wonder at the richness of this new life I got to live. I was learning, growing, expanding to fill the space I had never felt back home. This new place became my home, and I hated the idea of leaving it for even a moment. I was surrounded by people who understood me and loved me for who I am – or at least, this part of me that has never before felt truly understood before.

I was attending one of the most prestigious schools in the world for the circus arts, and so the circus artist in my thrived while I neglected nearly everything else. I didn’t write a single poem for eight months, and the writer in me watched in increasing irritation as I failed to record a single detail from my life.

It is so easy for us to lie to ourselves at times, far easier than we like to admit. I viewed my life as one does a new lover: through rose tinted glasses that slowly, imperceptibly, deteriorate in time.

Yes, my fall semester was filled with beautiful moments and simple joys, with friendship and laughter and love. But there was also an underlying pain I was not dealing with, one I could only ignore for so long. I was tired all the time, fatigued in a way you cannot fully understand until you have experienced it for yourself, one even then I could not begin to understand. I played mind games with myself to get to the end of the week, and I spent much of my time looking forward to a weekend that never quite seemed long enough. I worked hard to squeeze myself into the mould the school had cast for me but no matter how hard I tried, I never really fit.

I was doing work that was, in many ways, extremely satisfying. Any kind of growth in that capacity usually is. I am incredibly grateful for that period of learning, and I have no regrets but for this one: I began going about my days in a way that was inauthentic and ultimately unsustainable, and I lost a large part of myself in the process.

The thing is, we are all multifaceted people – some are just more this way than others. I am not wired in a way where I thrive on a single-minded environment where nearly everything you do falls upon some pre-determined path. I do much better with the freedom to choose and simultaneously pursue a few different kinds of work aligned with my interests. Balance is key, I know this now. It took me many hard months to get here.

Sometimes people can see things in us we cannot see in ourselves; sometimes we are just too close to the problem.

Others can sense when you are lying to yourself, as a friend of mine once told me. There was a heaviness in my life that I was ignoring. Towards the end of the first month of the new year, one of my coaches approached me with a question that shook me to the core. In essence, she was asking one thing: are you happy? Is this really what you want to do?

I was forced to face a decision I’d been lingering on for about a year, one that held with it the gravity of my entire world. I knew my answer would change everything, literally everything about my path, where I would go and how I would move forward. Terrified and shaking, I chose to do what my gut was telling me. I ended a partnership that had grown toxic, the same partnership that guaranteed my place at school. I took action, and then it was my turn to wait. And wait. And wait.

A few months later, things blew up in my face in a way I had not anticipated. I faced more rejection in four months than I thought one heart could take. And yet, the day after the finale of one spectacular supernova and a mere three hours of sleep, I looked healthier than I had in months. I had a friend tell me my face was glowing.

Life has a funny sense of humour. At times, Life is not very funny at all. Our capacity to move through grief lies in our ability to remain open to the lessons Life has to teach us in the moments we’re on our knees, holding in our hands the two halves of a heart that has split in two. Trust the process – there are some things you cannot know.

I see now that this life I get to live in this moment is much more in line with what I truly want to do. It is, however, also a life I could not have imagined would be possible before my initial plans all went to shit. My intentions were clear all along, I just did not know they would manifest themselves in this way.

Each life is a work in progress. We cannot rewrite the past, but we can change how we approach the future. We can choose to give ourselves space to feel whatever we are feeling without holding on too tightly to ideas of what tomorrow may look like, whether that be for better or for worse. The only constant in a constantly changing world is change.

One short chapter in my life is coming to an end, and I never imagined I would be ready to move on so soon. But I am. This next chapter is going to be a good one, I can feel it. Here I come.

Uncertainty

Recently, I’ve observed an interesting pattern that seems to recur throughout life. That is, nothing ever goes the way you expect. Even the best-laid plans can go awry sometimes. Or often. Or all the time.

If there is anything life has taught me in the last number of months, it is this: there is great value in being able to go with the flow and adapt to whatever comes your way, for better or for worse. Something that seems like a tragedy at the moment can be the best thing that ever happened to you – and vice versa. Uncertainty is part of the beauty of life. You never really quite know what is going on until you can look back and say, ah, I see it now.

There is no way to anticipate the future, and there is no one straight path to get where you’re going in life, whether you like it or not.

You make a decision, and that decision leads you down one avenue or the next, which in turn leads to the next fork in the road and on to the next. It’s not a matter of right or wrong, but more a matter of choices.

There was a time in my life when I created a highly regimented schedule and set of rules that I used to govern every decision I made. It was all self-imposed; I thought I knew what I wanted, and I was convinced I knew the best way to get there. I suppose every teen goes through a phase of thinking they know best, and mine just looked a little different than most people my age.

While my peers began to explore an ever-expanding world of choices, I confined myself to a shrinking prison of discipline and all the things that I knew were safe. They went to parties and tried alcohol, and I stayed home and played with new restrictions I could add to my diet. I had a set of exercises I would do each night after I came home already exhausted from a five-hour training session, and I wouldn’t let myself go to bed until they were done. Heaven forbid I touch a piece of chocolate or bowl of potatoes. If I did, the guilt would consume me until I did some extra cardio, even if I had already spent twenty-six hours at the gym that week. Or I might just explode.

It was an extremely limited, stressful way to live, one that was  entirely unsustainable in the long run.

I missed out on a lot during those six years of adolescence. I became increasingly delusional in my pursuit of a goal that was not my own, but rather one I’d adopted from some gymnasts I admired. There was no more passion in gymnastics for me – I was burnt out and tired beyond measure. People I hardly knew were worried about me, but I stubbornly refused the facts staring me in the face until I couldn’t any longer. The illusion came crashing down, and I had to start from scratch.

What do I really want to do with my life? I asked myself again and again. At the time, I had prided myself on being so self-disciplined. I had claimed it made life easier, not to have to make so many decisions. But now I look back and think, maybe I was just scared. Scared of the unknown, scared of failure or doing something undoable I might regret.

It’s funny to think about this now. Within the span of four months following a big decision in January, I had my life turned completely upside down to an extent I did not see coming. I tried to anchor myself to something that was ultimately not meant to last, at least not in the capacity it had existed up until that point. And so it collapsed beneath the weight of so much pressure, and I was free. It was time for a change, yet I was once again terrified of having the world at my feet with nothing to hold me down.

Freedom can be terrifying.

We constantly search for external anchors in life when really, the only anchor we can rely on is the one within ourselves. At our core, we all know what we truly want, whatever that may be. We’re just too scared to go after it because doing so feels exceedingly vulnerable. We tell ourselves it is impossible because we don’t know if it has ever been done. Or at the very least, we don’t know how to accomplish it. Or we’re too busy, or too tired or comfortable for such shenanigans.

Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable, and maybe rightly so. But nothing in life is ever truly fixed or certain, and acknowledging this can give us the courage to take steps where we’ve never been before, to travel and explore.

When we are young, I believe travel is the ideal way to learn and expand the brain. I was so fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I did growing up. It is a large part of the reason I am who I am today. The world can be one of the best classrooms. Now, during one of the most formative parts of my life, the thought of being tied down to any one place for too long makes me anxious. Travel is the thing I crave.

While seeing how people exist in different parts of the world is invaluable in any capacity, flying solo increases that by tenfold. Solitude enables you to reflect on your experiences and rediscover things about yourself in a way that you cannot do when you are surrounded by the people and places you know well. We need space to hear our ourselves think.

I say “rediscover,” because I believe life is largely not a process of learning about who you are but uncovering the things you already know.

No one can ever know you better than you know yourself, as comforting as it can be to let yourself think otherwise for a time. I am in the process of learning to separate my opinions and emotions from those of the people around me. You will always be influenced in one way or another by the people you spend the most time with, but being aware that it is happening gives you the power to question whose words are coming out of your mouth and dominating your brain.

These days, I am learning to let go and trust in the process a little more. I still believe there is value in setting a direction for your life, but I also believe it is important to take opportunities as they arise. So I’ve decided to do just that, to have ideas and dreams then focus on taking baby steps and the occasional leap of faith when the cliff arrives. We’ll see where it takes me next. So far, it has led me down one pretty beautiful path.

Connecting Dots

Life is a funny thing sometimes.

Looking back on my life in the last number of years, I had no idea it would take me to this moment I’m standing in right now. Life does this thing where it’ll push you and pull you different places until you start heading in the direction you’re meant to go. You can be so utterly convinced you’re headed down the right path when – surprise – the ground gets torn out from beneath your feet.

You can hold on so tightly to something only to have it be ripped from your hands, only to find out it’s not meant to be.

Some things in life are worth fighting for, but I now know there is also value in letting go. My Opa had a saying he would always repeat when the going got tough – really, it is the mantra of his life. He would say, “Never give up.” If something’s not working, you try harder, you grit your teeth and make it work. If they say you can’t do something, you find a way.

It was a philosophy that was instilled in me from the time I was very young. This is how my grandparents taught my mother to go about life, and so naturally it got passed down to me. When you’re that young, you don’t see the pain being so stubborn can cause, you just believe the adults know best. So I fought my way through many things, holding on to fantasies and dreams I didn’t realize weren’t my own.

Artistic gymnastics runs through my blood: when my mother was very young she started into the sport, her own mother and father acting as both her parents and her coaches. When it became apparent that my mother had the passion and work ethic necessary to go far, she reached a level she would need to move to another province in order to continue on the path towards her goals. But this would mean their little girl would be away from home, so my grandparents decided to build their own path instead. They built their own gym, a gym which became a ‘home of the champions.’

After years of blood, sweat and tears, my mother went on to be successful on the international scene, achieving the status of an Olympian. Because of the boycott of 1980, she never got the chance to compete, and so I thought I wanted to complete this journey for her. In fact, for some time when I was young, I thought this was the only way to be a success in life. I had to carry on my family’s legacy.

This was an idea all my own – my family never forced me to continue, but whole-heartedly supported me in whatever path I chose. My gymnastics career, like my mother’s, was fraught with pain and injury, but unlike hers, mine came with very little success. I struggled with fear and mental blocks that resembled walls, with a distorted body image and loneliness and eating issues. I held on for eleven years, until at last I became a national level gymnast at age 16…only to tear my ACL two months later. This forced me to step back and take a hard look at my life.

I remember sitting in the car with my mom after I’d gone to see the sports doctor to be referred for an MRI. I was sobbing so hard it was difficult to breathe, let alone speak. The doctor hadn’t seen the imaging results yet, but he could already tell me it was very likely I’d torn the major stabilizing ligament in my knee. This meant surgery and a long, long road to recovery. In this moment, there was one thing I knew that played on repeat in my mind: “I don’t want to go back to gymnastics,” I said. And I knew in my gut, it was true.

As I looked back on the months leading up to the injury, I realized I’d grown depressed and lost my passion for the sport. Fear overshadowed the love of flying through the air I’d once known. After taking a week off at Christmas, on the first day I was supposed to return to the gym, I spent two hours with tears streaming down my face while my mom convinced me to go to training. In the week before the injury, my brain and body felt sluggish, disconnected. I was spending practices dreaming of going home to spend time with my family and would have a sick day at least one time per month.

In time, I realized that going to compete in the Olympics was no longer my dream. Maybe it had been at one point, but it was no longer the thing I wanted to do with my life; it was something I clung to as part of my identity. I didn’t know who I was without it. Gymnastics had become a means to an end.

Slowly, I started discovering things I was truly passionate about, things I wanted to pursue that had been there all along.

I did a lot of reading and thinking and soul searching, identifying some of the beliefs and values that sit at the core of who I am. That isn’t to say I’d learned my lesson; I took steps that led me down one path, only to find out once again, it would not lead me to be the best version of myself I can be. It was not the path for me.

Steve Jobs once said, “You can only connect the dots looking backwards.” We can’t predict the future, we can only live one day at a time. Every action we take has a consequence that effects our lives and the lives of those around us. I’ve learned that the world is a small place: every person on earth is connected by an average of six degrees of separation, which is a lot smaller than you’d think. This means that, if you sent out a letter, it would have to pass through the hands of an average of five people in order to make it back to you. Our lives are built on a kind of butterfly effect, where I know one decision I make today will impact someone I don’t even know tomorrow.

We can only connect the dots looking backwards, and sometimes those dots hurt.

Failure hurts. Rejection hurts. Broken hearts take time to heal, and it takes time to learn how to trust again. But these dots are also lessons and plot twists in the stories of our lives. I know if I hadn’t held on to gymnastics for so long, if I hadn’t followed certain curiosities or taken certain risks, there are people in my life who wouldn’t be where they are today. I wouldn’t be where I am today. Life is a process of living and learning, of testing the water with your big toe and knowing the water is cold but deciding to dive in anyways.

I’m grateful for all the dots that got me to where I am today. Looking back, many things make sense. I can also acknowledge that I have no idea where I’m going right now, that I’m floating and I don’t know what my next step will be. Life has kind of knocked me flat on my back, but I had a good friend remind me recently that sometimes, that’s okay.

Sometimes you have to lie down in the grass and look up at the stars for a while. Life will show you where to go, just you wait.