Someone I know is working full time while studying for a degree level qualification. She is doing phenomenally well in her study and has also successfully applied for a better job, twice. Even so, this doesn't stop bouts of self-doubt, occasional writers block and a debilitating sense of the overwhelming challenge of the study. Then there is all of the things that there simply isn’t time to get done that week… Yet it is clear to all, including herself, that the study, the first new job and now the second even better new job, are all great achievements and good choices. Somehow it doesn't seem logical that it should be such a struggle and that over time it doesn’t seem to be getting any easier…
I speak some Dutch, I’ve read a few books in the language and I can follow most conversations without too much trouble. I can even understand a letter from a pension company or the Gemeente (town council) reasonably well. I signed up for a Dutch course that turned out to be one-to-one and therefore tailored to the student’s needs.
I approached this decision with some hesitation. Do I really have time? Do I have enough energy? Will it really be useful? The first lesson came around and I very much enjoyed it. We had a great conversation about when I used to live in Berlin as a child, what I enjoy about living in the Netherlands, cultural differences that I experience and we even have some things in common. Afterwards I was tired (lessons are just over 2 hours long on Friday evenings after work) but I was also very stimulated and energized. I had some homework to do and we started talking more Dutch at home. It was a great start.
A few days later I was working on my homework and it was more difficult than I expected. It took a lot longer than I expected. I don’t really know much Dutch at all. The tutor obviously got the wrong idea. Maybe I come across as quite bright and charming during a conversation, but my Dutch really isn’t that great. He obviously misunderstood and he’s given me homework that’s too high level.
To describe how I was feeling as fear seems completely overblown and dramatic and yet that is the closest word to describe it. I am not talking about physical fear, I am talking about internal, emotional fear. (I wasn’t afraid of the tutor. He is very nice.) I wanted to quit the course. I had no idea how I would get anything else done at home when I am spending so many hours on studying. I can’t do it, it’s too hard and it won’t help me anyway. It’s not worth it.
Why is it so hard?
As adults we get really good at lots of different things. Then when you try something new, often you are not good at it at all and we are not used to that anymore. I have seen grown-ups throw down tools in a rage during the first attempt. That’s fine, as long as you pick your tools up again to make a second one…
When doing something new you are literally growing new connections in your brain. With learning comes the realisation of everything you don’t know. It is frustrating and tiring and you need some amount of willpower to get through the periods when it’s difficult.
But if it’s easy, by definition it’s not a challenge. If you know all the answers you are not learning. If you don’t feel anything then you probably just don’t care.
Your Heart’s Desire
If you are offered your heart’s desire you may experience an even more intense desire to turn away from it. If everyone is saying to you ‘I don’t understand why you won’t go. I thought you always wanted to bungee-jump/play guitar/[insert relevant ambition here]?’ Maybe think twice about your choices. Do you feel afraid? Do you want to cry? Is there a tangle or fog clouding your decision making faculties? Do you feel a bit feverish?
It takes a massive act of will to push through the fear of doing something new and this fear seems to increase with age. Be reassured that it probably won’t be like it is in your head, it will probably be more like right now except you are doing that thing you always wanted/needed/hoped to do. It will be all kinds of unexpected things too and at least some of them will definitely be good. If it is really horrible then you can always stop.
I am still attending the course of course, I have a simple study plan and I spend 4-5 hours on study a week. I confessed to the tutor how I work and why it was taking me so long, which has resulted in a more reasonable amount of homework.
I still dread my study hours a little and the lessons even more than the homework. I have to propel myself forward towards the door of the building. It does seem extreme doesn’t it?
Having said all that, I do enjoy it, both the study and the lessons. I am already thinking about how I can continue at a similar intensity when the course is over. It’s only 8 weeks after all and there is plenty for me to learn. I do know a lot of the basics and this course is taking me deeper into the subtleties of the language. Ultimately it helps me to better understand what is actually being said. The Dutch are famous for directness and they have a lot of small words that say plenty. I would like to know more of those words.
How to get through it
Let your friends and loved ones know that you are starting something new and that it is exciting and important to you so that they can help pull you through if you start having a wobble.
During a breakthrough you might not be able to think straight, so before you take the leap make a simple plan: make it clear, if only to yourself, exactly what you hope to do, how to take the first few steps, and then do it. Just keep doing it.
Stick to your plan. It probably won’t be easy but it will be worth it.
Co-founder, The Clean Sheet