Blindsided by a job loss, the author learned that the unfamiliar isn’t to be feared: It can be a chance to turn your life around.
When it came to change, my father had it licked. His motto was simply “Don’t let it happen to you.” He proudly wore the same tie he’d had since college. He moved house just three times―ever. But his town and his life were epicenters of low upheaval. For most of us, change is an unavoidable fact, something I (re)discovered when, several years back, I lost my job in a shrinking industry. Far from ruining my life, that seismic shift gave me the chance to do two things I had always hoped to do: live in India and learn a new language (Hindi). In the process, I discovered a lot about how to survive when head-rattling transformations are thrust upon you. Here are some of the tricks I picked up along the way.
1. Don't just do something; sit there. If you’re facing a massive rescaling of your life, your first impulse will be to go into a whirring spin of activity, which is exactly what I did right after I was fired. I later discovered there’s a lot of value to sitting quietly instead. In the realm of language learning, there’s a stage called the silent period: Adults may try to avoid going through it, but if you take a kid and plop her down in Paris for a spell, she’ll naturally clam up for a few months. When she opens her mouth, her French will have flowered. Making sense of a major change is a lot like that. You need to allow yourself a fallow period before you can blossom.
2. Mother yourself a little. When familiar routines suddenly dissolve, it can seem as if all your supports are gone. For a while after I lost my job, I had the sense that I was in free fall. It’s crucial, while absorbing the shock of the new, to make yourself feel well taken care of. Prepare nutritious meals for the week ahead. If you can spare the cash, have someone come in and clean the house. Yes, you need to take some time for yourself, but don’t let the pizza boxes pile up.
3. Ignore your inner reptile. There’s a part of the human mind that is often referred to as the “lizard brain,” because it existed in even the earliest land animals. The lizard brain is concerned with survival; it likes the tried and true, so it’s likely to pipe up right now, flooding you with adrenaline warnings of “Danger!” as you veer off course. This was a handy function to have when deviating from the familiar path to the watering hole may have led to an encounter with a saber-toothed tiger. But in the modern world it’s like a misfiring car alarm: pointless and annoying.
4. Silence your inner know-it-all, too. When I interviewed the eminent linguist Alton Becker, I asked what makes someone good at languages. It helps not to be too smart, he said, explaining, “Smart people don’t like having their minds changed, and to learn a language, you have to change your mind.” If you’re so smart that you can’t rethink your positions, all your IQ points won’t do you much good when your life is turned upside down. Becker’s advice applies across the board.
5. Seek out new perspectives. Zen practitioners cultivate the “don’t know” mind; they work to assume they don’t know anything and in that way see the world fresh. This is a great way to approach change―as an opportunity to start anew, to consider all possibilities. Ask naive, wide-eyed questions of anyone who is doing anything you might be interested in trying. Listen seriously to arguments you might once have dismissed.
6. Try something new and slightly scary. Why? Because now is the time to explore what it is that you really like. Catch yourself off-guard and see what happens. At a time when I was feeling most stuck, I spontaneously volunteered to get up onstage at an open-mic storytelling evening in New York City. The experience was elating and terrifying and showed me that I wanted to lead a more creative life.
7. Be skeptical of common wisdom. It’s dangerous to live in the aggregate, especially when you’re trying to figure out your next move. One year, everyone knows you need an M.B.A. to succeed at anything. The next, they’re saying that there are no jobs out there anyway, so don’t even try. In my case, everyone but I knew that you can’t learn a language at age 43. But since no one alerted me to that fact, that’s what I set my sights on.
8. Learn to live with uncertainty. When I began learning Hindi, my teacher encouraged me to get out and practice with native speakers in New York. I wound up asking a waiter for love (pyar) when I’d meant to request a cup (pyala). But in that way I inched into a new language. That anxious feeling does not signal that you’re doing something wrong, only that you’re trying something new.
9. Say "really?" a lot. When you start to turn this sudden shift in your life to your advantage, you might shake up a lot of people, especially the ones who aren’t happy with how they’re living. To them, your efforts to move forward may feel like a glaring searchlight that needs to be switched off and fast. To their descriptions of the terrible fates that will surely befall you if you dive headlong into a new life, respond with “Really?” Alternatively, “Oh, yeah?” works, too.
10. Shed your old skin. Discard physical clutter, tired ideas, old routines. Seeing things through another’s eyes can help. I had that chance when the Hindi school I enrolled in asked me to list my daily requirements. I could honestly have said, “For the past 62 days, I’ve eaten pineapple sandwiches for breakfast: toast, butter, canned pineapple (sliced, not crushed). Bedtime: white-noise machine (surf, not rain), four pillows (two hard, two soft).” Instead I wrote, “None.” It’s only when you have cast off what has been weighing you down that you can finally move on.