The Trouble With Starting

Opening at the end of a tunnel

In my July Challenge post I discussed shifting my perspective to overcome the limiting framework that I have created but is no longer serving me. Specifically, this month I am working through the beliefs that:

  • I should be an expert on any topic before I start.
  • I’m too old to start something new, especially something that requires a large educational commitment. 

When combined, these two beliefs make it very challenging for me to start or commit to new projects. I have no trouble starting something with no commitment requirement and little up-front investment. I love trying out a new cooking technique, going to a new type of workout class, or taking a mini weekend course. However, when it comes to a full-on project or commitment I’m often paralyzed.

I know that neither of these beliefs are practical, neither are based in fact, and both have much evidence that proves them conclusively wrong. Despite this knowing, these two beliefs have somehow made their way into a basic part of my mindset and, looking backwards, I can see that I have used them as reasons not to start when various opportunities have presented themselves. For example, blogging has been on my list of yearly goals for at least 3 years. I am finally forcing myself to work through the resistance and start anyway, but it has been challenging every step of the way.

This month I’m combining some introspection and a little bit of action and collaboration to challenge these two beliefs. I may not overcome them in this short amount of time, but I want make sure they are in the forefront, and I consciously recognize when I am preventing myself from moving forward.

In an effort to undo, or at least understand, my self-imposed limitations, I have been trying to remember when these beliefs first developed and find examples of when I moved past them organically. Thinking through these beliefs has led me to uncover a stronger root cause for my avoidance of straying far from the path I started down when I was 18, and deciding on my major in college. I am feeling guilty about not directly using the education that I have spent so much time and money acquiring. The first time I can remember thinking that I was too old, or not expert enough to start something new was in my senior year of college. I interviewed for a fortune 500 company for a mechanical engineering job, and as part of the interview we were given an exam. I was told that I scored extremely well the exam, and that up until recently it had been used exclusively to test aspiring computer programmers. I remember joking that maybe I should have become a programmer, but I also remember thinking that maybe I really should have become a programmer, but that it was too late to change my path. It wasn’t really my age at that point, but the burden of having become fully trained as a mechanical engineer and the desire to use that education even if my gut feeling told me that it wasn’t the best fit. I completed two Master’s degrees while working full-time and, for me, as I continued to gain degrees the feeling of being burdened by that education grew stronger. I felt required to directly use the knowledge from those two additional degrees, a Masters in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA.

In an attempt to move past this long-existing set of beliefs that keep me trudging down the same path, I have been thinking through the things I HAVE successfully started, and what conditions made that possible. Many of my successes have stemmed from organic growth of a small interest that I first explored without the burden of commitment of any kind. One great example of this is my jewelry business, Amy’s Beads LLC. I learned lampwork in my 20s and started to accumulate a large stash of lampwork glass beads. I drew on my experience from making jewelry as a child and started to put together finished pieces. I read about starting a business online and formed an LLC, and with that was able to start a small business selling my own handcrafted jewelry in 2008. I have since moved away from lampwork as my primary jewelry technique and have learned wire weaving. I’m currently also learning other metal-working techniques and I’m sure my jewelry will continue to evolve.

I have also been successful growing running from a small interest into a major aspect of my life. I started running in college and stuck with running very short distances, a mile or two, for many years in order to “stay in shape”. I remember signing up for my first coordinated run, a 2 mile homecoming run at the University of Pennsylvania, my Alma Matter. I went to the gym a week or two before the run to see if I could run two miles straight through on the treadmill. I gradually tried longer and longer distances. Running is now a major part of my life and has been the catalyst for many unique experiences. I have met many new friends through running, I have run many half marathons, I have raised almost $10,000 for the Cohn’s and Colitis Foundation by completing three fundraising half marathons, and in 2017 I completed my first 26.2.

Reviewing both of these experiences has made me recognize that I can start small, grow an interest organically, and sidestep the overwhelming resistance that I feel when I think immediately about the ten year plan instead of taking things one step at a time. 

As part of my quest to release myself from the beliefs that have held me back from starting larger projects for much of my adult life, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend who has done exactly the opposite. My friend Elizabeth Hopkins has successfully reinvented herself many times over the course of her career.

Elizabeth has been educated and worked in several vastly different fields. She has a BA in English and Theater, an MFA in acting, an Associated Degree in Paralegal Studies, and a Certificate in Computer Programming. Elizabeth has worked as a programmer, paralegal and manager of paralegals, lampwork glass artist, and dogsitter. She recently completed a course to learn to be an End of Life Doula, and is currently starting a business in this area. Elizabeth shared that she is currently working on tuning in to and trusting her intuition. She is also a firm believer that if something is meant to work out, great things will happen along the way to push you in the right direction.

Elizabeth’s Lampwork!

This occurred most clearly when she was starting out as a lampwork artist and happened to make acquaintance with a gallery owner on an airplane. He became a key supporter throughout this phase of Elizabeth’s career. Before beginning her latest challenge, Elizabeth felt that something new was coming along. She had a strong desire to make a positive social impact on the world and when she heard about a course in becoming an End of Life Doula she knew that would be the next thing.

I had a few major aha moments when talking to Elizabeth about her careers:

  • While expertise is not required to start something new, formal education in some form can be very beneficial and need not be burdensome. The End of Life Doula course that Elizabeth took was not a terribly lengthy endeavor, but provided a background and network in this new area.
  • Education is a lifelong process. I need not feel burdened by my prior education, but instead look to leverage applicable pieces of it and combine it with new learning as needed.
  • Vastly different projects are possible over the course of a career. Talking to Elizabeth has helped me put aside my traditional sequential view of a career and instead think of it as more of a journey that evolves gradually as new interests are explored. This has helped me recognize that it’s okay that I have never been able to clearly articulate an answer to the ever-popular interview question: Where do you see yourself in 5 years.
  • Each project can be fulfilling in a different way. Elizabeth pursued some of her projects to make money, some for art and beauty, and one to make sure her dog had a constant supply of furry friends. Her latest project was born out of her desire to make a positive impact on society.

How will I use my lessons from Elizabeth and from my own introspection to make a difference in my life going forward? I now recognize clearly for myself, the benefit and impact of taking small steps to see where they will lead. I will continue to take small steps as interests present themselves and see what forms from there. I am also planning to revisit my interest in technology fields (programming, big data, and the ethics of technological advancements) in November when I am challenging myself to try at least 4 new things. I also hope this month’s project will help me to quickly recognize and correct my own inaction when it stems from this set of self-constructed limitations.

About the Photo

Opening at the end of a tunnelI took this photo in Watkins Glen State Park in NY. This is a beautiful hike any time of year, and we were lucky to get a chance to walk through it in the fall when the colors were at their height. I love that you can’t fully see what is coming ahead of you, but the small glimpse you do get promises great things are just around the bend!

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