Trying New Things

new pathMy wife and I are similar in a number of ways, but we’re completely opposite in how we feel about trying new things.  I resist and often fear it, while she positively craves it.  For as long as I can remember, I haven’t even liked trying new foods (an aversion my family and friends have alternately found amusing and consternating), preferring instead to eat what I already know I like.  My wife, in contrast, almost never orders the same thing twice.  In fact, when we go out, she’d rather not even go to the same restaurant twice.  I, of course, prefer restaurants I already know.  I thrive on routine, finding myself for the most part perfectly happy to do the same things day after day (never tiring of them because I love doing them).  My wife, on the other hand, finds routine to be poisonous to her passion for life.

One benefit of enjoying routine, I routinely point out to her, is that it supports discipline, which I have in spades, enabling me to commit to lengthy projects and actually finish them.  My enjoyment of routine also makes me incredibly reliable.  As my wife has remarked to our family and friends many times, when she asks me to handle a routine chore, she never has to worry if it’s been skipped:  I will do it faithfully, day in and day out, without fail, ad infinitum.

Still, despite these benefits, I’ve known for some time the real reason I resist trying new things and prefer routine is (what else?) fear—fear of the unknown.  Studies suggest we fear an unknown outcome more than we do a known bad one.  What if I don’t like this new dish?  What if that foreign country is dangerous?  I have an extremely active and fertile imagination, and though it’s a great advantage in writing, it can sometimes be a disadvantage in living.

There are many things of which I have no fear whatsoever:  I’m not afraid to fail.  I’m not afraid to succeed.  I’m not afraid to look foolish (though I don’t like it any more than anyone else).  I’m essentially mostly afraid of being in situations where I perceive I might be in some way unsafe (that fact, coupled with the general tendency we all have to fear the unknown, probably best explains my fear of death, which I wrote about in an earlier post, Overcoming The Fear Of Death).

It also explains an apparent paradox:  not only am I not afraid to try some new things, I’m often actually eager.  As long as I perceive no threat of harm, I like the stimulation of the new.  This blog, for example.  The benefits writing it has brought me have been wonderful and mostly completely unexpected.  Which highlights the reason I try to challenge my fear of new things:  it almost always brings me something good.

One of the strangest new things I ever tried was Nichiren Buddhism.  I’d always been attracted to the idea that enlightenment might actually be a real thing, possible to attain in a way that made a real difference in the subjective quality of a person’s life.  Yet the strangeness of chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo made me so uncomfortable at first I spent a lot of time wondering if I’d lost my mind in even opening up to the idea.  But I’m so glad I did.  In previous posts, I’ve described some of the benefits my Buddhist practice has brought me over the last twenty-three years.

But even if it had brought me not a single benefit and I’d stopped practicing soon after I’d started, I’d still consider my decision to have tried it one of my proudest moments.  Nothing I’ve ever tried before or since has represented a larger move away from what was safe and familiar to me.

Opening our minds to a new thing or a new way of thinking is often frightening because by definition it’s unfamiliar.  Unfamiliarity often rings the alarm bell “danger—potentially unsafe.”  But if you think about it, most of the things we fear don’t actually come to pass.  What’s more, we’re often unable to anticipate the good things that do occur as a result of our trying something new.

In summary, here’s a list of things I try to remind myself whenever I’m faced with trying something new:

  1. Trying something new often requires courage.  And needing to summon courage is itself a benefit.  Once it’s released it will, like its second cousin once removed, anger, indiscriminately engulf everything in its path.  How wonderful to open a flood of courage and be carried on its waves to destinations of unexpected benefit.
  2. Trying something new opens up the possibility for you to enjoy something new.  Entire careers, entire life paths, are carved out by people dipping their baby toes into small ponds and suddenly discovering a love for something they had no idea would capture their imaginations.
  3. Trying something new keeps you from becoming bored.  Even I, the most routine-loving person I know, become bored if I’m not continually challenged in some way.  And it’s not the new challenges I’m eager to take on that represent my greatest opportunities for growth—it’s the ones I’m not.
  4. Trying something new forces you to grow.  We don’t ever grow from taking action we’ve always taken (the growth that enabled us to be able to take it has already occurred).  Growth seems to require we take new action first.  Thrusting yourself into new situations and leaving yourself there alone, so to speak, often forces beneficial change.  A spirit of constant self-challenge keeps you humble and open to new ideas that very well may be better than the ones you currently hold dear (this happens to me all the time).

It’s usually this last point that wins me over.  For me, trying new things isn’t about just enjoying a new activity or food, for example.  I really am content enjoying all the things I already enjoy.  But straying into foreign territory, both metaphorically and literally, has always forced me to challenge my beliefs.  And as painful as that is, nothing, I believe, contributes to our happiness more than shattering the delusions to which we cling, unable as we often are to distinguish between beliefs that are true and beliefs that are false (especially beliefs about ourselves).  And for better or worse, we simply seem unable, most of the time, to identify a belief as delusional unless some experience shows us.

In the end then, I find the spirit to try new things synonymous with the spirit of self-improvement.  And while I can’t honestly say I’m intrinsically interested in the former (and sometimes need a gentle reminder to do it from people around me), the latter is a large part of the reason I’m alive.

Next weekThe Art Of Microcompromise

15 comments to Trying New Things

  • Julia

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for a great post. You and I have a lot in common personality wise. I’ve got my routines down pat, and it tends to be the butt of many office jokes. Though, while I read your post, I had a couple of thoughts. Your fear is probably what makes you a good doctor. It’s the overconfident, incautious doctors that scare me. So, even though it is sometimes an inhibiting personality trait, it’s perfect for your profession.

    I stayed out of medicine because I was afraid of making a mistake. I actually read my first medical textbook when I was in elementary school. My family was certain I would become a doctor. I guess going into art was a real slap in their face. But I was too afraid. Now that I can look back and see where my fears were unjustified, I wish an adult had sat down and helped me work through some of that. LOL. Learning how to handle fear is almost like a new lease on life…everything looks different, and new opportunities open up.

    Thanks again for the blog.

    Julia

    Julia: I find the statement that you didn’t go into medicine and instead went into art because you were too afraid highly ironic. I paint myself (in oils) and at one point considered having a go at making a living at art—but fear of financial insecurity stopped me (doctors are notoriously risk averse). Frankly, I think aiming to make a living as an artist takes far more courage than aiming to make a living as a doctor. Certainly, becoming a doctor is hard, but once you achieve a certain degree of mastery, it provides for an extremely secure life (or at least, the illusion of one). I greatly admire anyone with the courage to brave an uncertain economic future to do something they love (which I presume you do art).

    Alex

  • What a thought-provoking post, Alex, that has me thinking about my own intense love of the unknown. I like to challenge my mind and test myself to enjoy everything even sitting in a waiting room. As a freelancer I actually wrote a story about a woman here in suburban Philly who practices Nichiren Buddhism. I was only too happy to try it myself, that amazing chant, but it was not me. As a Jew, I have taken communion in a Catholic church and after meeting a woman in the mall prayed to Jesus one night. No good. Finally I found my faith: none. I stopped searching yet I practice eternal gratitude for this vast and beautiful universe.

  • Speaking of ironic, I find it hard to imagine you can harbor this fear of the unknown and be a practicing Buddhist for so long.

    To me, Buddhism helps to puts a spotlight on the difference between that which we experience, and the concepts and notions which our mind create. And helps us to realize that to truly understand and appreciate the world around us, we must be open to its unfolding. We must “go with the flow.”

    Having now gained some insights into my own nature, I have come to realize fears of the unknown as my ego’s attempt to protect itself—protection either for physical survival, or more often, for its established identity—the mental image we have of who we are: our beliefs, our opinions, our likes and dislikes.

    And as part of my Buddhist experience, I have learned to enjoy challenging my ego. Or perhaps better said, making it a tool that I can use when I need it (to exist in the workaday world), or can put away in my toolbox when I am looking for insights and growth, or to better appreciate and become one with world around me.

    And through this process, I have concluded that when I rely upon my ego, I am separate from all that is, sometimes in conflict, and with a strong desire to control the outcome. But when I put my ego away (or at least take it off of center stage), then I am receptive to new ideas and new experiences, having no preconceived notion of what will come next, and how I will react to it; indeed, wanting not to react to it, but simply to experience it. When this occurs, I feel myself as a part of that flow, and deeply at peace.

    Having recognized these characteristics, I now find myself much preferring to put myself in those states of consciousness, and openly accept new ideas, new situations, and new experiences. I would think, upon reflection, this might become true for you as well.

    Namaste, and thanks for offering your insights into so many issues.

    Steven

    Steven: Though I certainly have my own ego issues, as you describe, I don’t think my fear of being unsafe is related to them (of course, since I don’t yet fully understand it’s cause, I could easily be wrong). I can only tell you that I am a work in progress. I have yet to have a curative awakening regarding this fear that frees me from it as if I’d never had it in the first place, as I’ve been similarly freed from other negativity by challenging it with my practice of Buddhism. But I continue to have hope that I will. Indeed, I’m much more able to challenge this fear than I’ve ever been—and yet it still remains…

    Alex

  • Hello Alex. Your note about change is the opportunity I’ve been after to connect purposefully, ever since I discovered your posts. Your description of the interaction with your wife regarding change could have been written, verbatim, about my partner and I. We’ve been together for just over 25 years and are going through a fairly big change—the difference in our responses to this has led us to suspect that I’m on the Asperger’s end of the Autistic Spectrum. We moved from the city I grew up and developed my professional practice in, over the previous 45 years, to another country. Our move to the opposite end of the planet has had an utterly unexpected effect—my sense of my (functional) self vanished and I am back at where I was when I’d finished college (minus the network of family and friends that knew me well and valued me as somebody that matters). We were both fearless (but aware of the challenges) and enthusiastic about the big move but something inside me has “jammed,” whereas my partner has settled into our new life effortlessly—friends, career etc. My point is that fear is not the only reason ordinary people struggle with change—it may be that some are simply not wired for it? Extensive reading and research (which is how I came across your blog) including a seminar we attended leaves us suspecting the difference in our responses is neural and I am currently working on finding a neuropsychologist with whom I hope to work through this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, I’ve enjoyed many of your posts. Kind regards.

    Ze: Best of luck in unjamming yourself. I’d be very interested to hear, when you break through, what it turns out to be for you.

    Alex

  • Maria

    I, on the contrary, adore trying new things, I try to engage in a new outdoors sport per year, but I’m terribly afraid of trying new professional pathways. And it is a clear fear of failing. I had found it somehow contradictory, but reading your post makes me think it might not be. I don’t really care if I’m not good at these outdoors sports, I do it for fun. But my professional life is another matter altogether. I cannot fail. I hope this new insight will help me overcome this fear, as right now I’m at a turning point in my professional life. Thanks again for the sincerity and satisfying logic!

    Maria: Good luck!

    Alex

  • Diana

    Alex, :-)
    Fearing the unknown is not only within the normality borders, but sometimes advisable. This is why mankind feared thunders and lighting before time. As these concepts were unknown to them.
    However, trying on new things (be it a new dish, traveling to a new country, trying on new sex stuff or new relaxation techniques—within legal limits) it is also highly recommendable.

    Routine give us a sensation of normality and predictability, which makes us and the others in perceiving us as reliable. However, imagine routine as the same brain pathway you walk onto for the same thing, over and over again. In time, it becomes an automatism and your brain stops being solicited. How can you develop if you don’t learn new things? :-) If you don’t challenge yourself to try on new things, you don’t use your brain at its full plasticity and capacity. :-)
    Not to mention the savor and novelty new things bring to your life. We evolve because we explore the NEW and push our personal knowledgeable limits.

    In your particular case, experience has taught you that new things were good to you (new religion=Buddhism, internet dating=cool wife, new dishes=culinary enchantment), so you had no unpleasant experience to contradict a learned behavior. In your mind this should equal new things=good=exciting. So, go for it, you have the right psychological frame set.

    It was a fun fact that you have not tried on new foods when you were a teen, but again, you passed the teen phase, right? No regression allowed, unless you play with your child :-)

    Your coping mechanisms are fully developed by now.

    Moreover, you said it yourself (the key is right there in your post, read it again): you have a vivid imagination (meaning you are IMAGINING things when comes to danger and threat). Threat becomes real when you face it, until then you should shoo it away. Or it will eventually take over your life (it usually starts with small things, like avoidance of trying new Mexican dishes as you fear indigestion).

    Also, bear in mind, that your defense, coping and adaption mechanisms will kick in the moment real threat and danger are present. This is why we are still around and dinosaurs are not :-) Go ahead, next week write about something REALLY and TOTALLY NEW you tried or are willing to try. Like have a trip to Amsterdam without being afraid you’ll fall into the trap of recreational drugs and loose prostitutes :-) or a trip to a third world yet gorgeous country without being afraid you’ll get cholera :-)
    Start local and small, baby steps, with paella or full fat milk :-)

    Diana: Actually, I’m even more afraid of loose prostitutes than I am of death. ;)

    Interestingly, several years ago my wife and I took a trip to Belize, about as far outside of my comfort travel zone as I’ve ever been, and I absolutely loved it. Everything you said is true.

    Alex

  • Chris

    Alex, I surmise that your fear of unsafe situations may be linked to your training a practice as a medical professional.

    As a medical professional, I believe more and more that much of our ill health and injures can be related to risky behaviors. Thus, the mantras “Be careful” and “Take care” have become my way-of-life. So, when I am in my work mode, I am wary if not fearful of actual and potential unsafe situations. I spend a lot of energy anticipating and projecting what may be unsafe and avoiding those risks for myself, my family and patients.

    On the outside, I enjoy variety, but simple variety suits me fine. For example, I travel to the same places over and over on vacation—AND they tend to be close to home. Instead of ranging far and wide (foreign countries), it is my wish to get a good close-up lens for my camera to see if I can capture the unseen details of the soil or the plants. I want to explore the depths of the things that are familiar to me.

    I also love a new challenge. I lay awake nights thinking of my next challenge. It could be simple. Right now, I am thinking of learning to knit, and re-awakening that tradition in my family and teaching it to my grandkids—after I get my black belt in Tae Kwon Do, that is. I am close now!

    Chris: I love hearing about people who continually challenge themselves. And your point about fear functioning in a positive way is well taken. The trick is knowing when that fear is being triggered unnecessarily or excessively.

    Alex

  • Chris

    I am reluctant to consider my reactions to new activities, food, etc., as a personality trait. My reactions vary according to what I am wanting or needing at the moment. Do I need some down-time and some nurturing? Do I need to re-charge after a busy day or a busy week? Then I will probably want something predictable rather than new (read unpredictable). Am I feeling rested & ready? Then I am more willing to take on something that’s unpredictable and may take me out of my comfort zone. For example, I’m an accomplished downhill skier. Last week while on vacation, my younger son asked me try something new—snowboarding. I found it hugely challenging to brain and body alike. I decided to snowboard only after I had skied for several days. By then, I felt renewed and ready to try something new. My son told everyone who’d listen, My mom’s got courage. With this kind of encouragement, I’ll never be too old to try something new.

  • jeann

    I’m reminded of the enneagram model of personality types by the innate difference of a preference to try new things and to be adventurous, and the reluctance or aversion of trying something unknown, preferring safety and security. As I recall, the 9 enneagram personality types are derived from how we choose to deal with fear at the earliest of ages and how we develop strategies for living from that.

  • Matt

    Alex I am very proud of you for trying Amitabul! Hope the leftovers were yummy.

    Matt: Thanks. I’m proud of me, too.

    Alex

  • shantu patel

    Fear is a strong negative emotion whose origin must be complex and partly exists to protect us, but also persists at a subconscious level to haunt us.

    At a very basic level it seems to serve in Body/Mind/Ego protection. Our reaction to our fears is therefore also three fold—protect the body from physical harm, avoid situations that create mental turmoil/challenge, and at the ego level resort to learned behaviors to shield it from onslaught.

    In Hinduism it is believed that fear originates from anticipated loss of what has been acquired in the past [fear of loss] or from fear of the future or unknown.

    Either way, it appears very deep rooted in all of us and I believe that we all as living beings have it to some extent.

  • Stephanie

    Alex, I am glad you wrote this post this week, because I have just arrived in Vienna, Austria to study here for a month, and I am now petrified of having decided to do this. I think a large part of my fear is about being alone. I am having a difficult time meeting people, and find that I may have to start trying to do things on my own. It feels like a totally irrational fear, and yet it is not going away. In my head, I totally agree with everything you’ve said, and actually look forward to the unexpected rewards. But in my heart, I am still quite petrified. How does one move past this fear?

    Stephanie: I have no easy answer. I would suggest practicing doing things that you fear but that you think will be good for you. Practice is the key word here: you don’t have to get it right even most of the time. Just try. When you thrust yourself into situations you fear and see them through to the end most of the time the experiences aren’t only not as bad as you feared but actually enjoyable. View your struggles as a chance to do what we Nichiren Buddhists call “human revolution”—that is, an opportunity to grow (that is, change) in a real way that leads to greater happiness. Real growth is always difficult. That’s how you know it’s real. Good luck to you. Never be defeated!

    Alex

  • Shira

    Dear Alex, hello from Paris. Thank you for your posts which I discovered last summer and read with pleasure every week. If I may, I would like to respond to Stephanie who is currently studying in Vienna, as I believe your response to her was not specific enough. First, congratulations to you for having challenged yourself to study abroad! Now my advice: when living in a foreign country (as opposed to visiting for a few days), it would be a good idea to literally switch modes of behavior, like you would switch gears in a car. We all see the world from our own cultural lens (in this case, an American point of view) and therefore we expect the new place we live in to conform to what we know. That particular expectation slows down (prevents even) our true encounter with (and enjoyment of) the “newness” we experience abroad. For instance, the notion that “meeting people is easy” (like smiling, shaking hands, exchanging a few words) is an American mindset (there is no judgment in my remark, just a statement of fact). The reality is this: it takes more time to meet people in certain cultures (that is the case in Europe). If we expect to “make friends” quickly in such cultures, then we set ourselves up for a feeling of failure, which increases our loneliness. My suggestion to you is to switch to a mode in which you play the role of observer (paying attention is an important part of learning). Observe situations, people, turn of phrases, body language, etc. Jot down what you see, taste and hear. Track these new and scary sensations. More importantly: be patient with yourself. You did not master your own language and culture in one month. Decide what you can realistically achieve in German within that time frame: recycle outside of class some phrases you have learned in class, see if you can understand a few newspaper headlines, exchange a few words about the weather with someone at a bus stop, get a cafe waiter to bring you exactly what you like, learn how to ask a question and get a useful answer, etc. In your case, all of the above are huge steps in a process of acculturation that requires practice, as Alex suggests, and a little humility. By calibrating your expectations to what you are really experiencing in this new culture, by taking baby steps, the fear and loneliness will go away and you will gain self-confidence. Those are the true rewards. And by the end of your stay, you will probably have transformed your fear into excitement (for having tried and learned a new thing!). You may even feel the urge to return Vienna soon to repeat the experience! In any case, I send you all the best.

  • How right you are about straying into foreign lands, both figuratively and literally. Never did I think I’d wind up in Haiti caring for such a multitude of severely injured patients. When the quake hit, I knew it was the right thing for me to go, but it was so outside my comfort zone I found myself hesitating. When I surrendered to the forces of karma, miraculously everything fell into place. Talk about trying new things! What an experience that was. Since then, my life’s been a crazy whirlwind filled with new opportunities to do some real good. One of the spinal cord patients I managed to bring back to Chicago from Haiti was a C2 case. Now he’s moving his legs. Most likely, he’ll walk out of rehab. Had I not taken the steps to do something utterly new, this never would have happened. I wrote about my experiences in Haiti in my blog. Check it out . . . http://www.bonesquad.com.

    Peace!

    Dr. Daniel Ivankovich aka ReverendDoctorD

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