When I was growing up, I always wanted to belong to the club, no matter what club it was. Whether it was kids playing sports I didn’t know really how to play, or groups of arrogant junior high school girls whose fashion savvy made me hate my pale blue stretch pants, or college study groups inhabited by those students who seemed to already know everything. This was a sensation that had nothing to do with the attitudes of the group I wished to join, by the way, and everything to do with my own feeling that I just wasn’t quite good enough.
Fortunately for me, and anyone else who might have stood on the sidelines with me, life shifts, we gain skills, our confidence grows, and we do become part of at least a few clubs along the way. One of my favorite aspects of adulthood has been that moment when you realize you really are pretty good at something and you look up to notice that other people think so too. Part of it, naturally, is finding the things that truly interest you, and part of it is immersing yourself in the subject, the job, or the activity until you actually do become an expert. This kind of absorption requires skills that most of us haven’t yet developed when we’re young, so it’s almost a double relief when we realize we have it in us to work hard and enjoy the payoff.
Reinvention requires going back to the basics and starting over.
I’m a little bit in this situation now when I have ended one pursuit and have begun another. Like most people at retirement, I was pretty good at my job by the time I got to the end of it and I could I barely remember my early, scared days, those mornings when I wasn’t sure what I would do when my administrative assistant went on break. But now I’m back at the beginning again, embarking on a career as a writer, striving to be part of a different club. I’ve been a writer off and on since I was in my mid-20s, but it was always a side project, not the thing I named when people asked me what I did.
As with most professions or activities we pursue, there is more to writing than one might imagine. It’s not all sitting at a computer constructing interesting pieces. First, there’s the part where I actually have to make myself sit down. Then there’s remaining seated when I might rather do anything else but that. Once I get settled and started writing, it’s easier, but then there’s editing and rewriting and looking for a place to publish what I’ve written. The point is, doing it every day with this kind of focus and interest is new to me. I am a beginner. On some level it sounds fun to be starting at square one, to be learning everything for the first time. Still, after so many years of being part of a club, I’m back at the start—striving to learn everything there is to know, including things I don’t even know that I need to know. In short, it’s scary and creates the same kind of self-doubt I had when I looked down at those powder blue stretch pants in 7th grade.
And then, gradually, the fear lessens and I realize I’ve made a few strides, just like I did in earlier periods of my life when I thought for sure I would die of anxiety or embarrassment. The longer I do this, though, the more grateful I am to have this chance to start over, to be a beginner. In fact, part of me wants it to go slowly so that I can actually learn the things I need to know. When you’re in the world of work, concerned about making a living and meeting deadlines, you fake your way through a few things from time to time simply because you have to. I never did learn to make a working Excel spreadsheet, for example, even though knowing how to do it would have saved me many frustrating hours with my primitive calculator and would have allowed me to share information in a much more valuable way.
Now I don’t want to pretend I know things I don’t. Even the urgency I always carry about needing to feel safe and comfortable is overshadowed by my reluctance to cut corners. When friends I’ve worked with move to new jobs, I always encourage them to take their time learning what they need to know, to give themselves plenty of opportunity to soak in everything that will help them feel comfortable.
That’s my goal for myself now, too, when I have this very luxurious opportunity to be a beginner again. Putting aside my desire to be comfortably ensconced in the club, I’m reminding myself to learn all I need to, to ask questions, to not feel the need to be an instant expert. Reinvention requires going back to the basics and starting over. Starting over asks us to be a beginner, to admit we're not quite in the club yet. I’m thinking at this age it is a lovely thing to put the pieces together with a little more openness, less fear and anxiety, and much more attention to the real details.