Maintaining neuroplatisticity by intentionally doing shit you suck at
|Ariel Meadow Stallings||Sep 23, 2019|| 9||5|
I lived in Los Angeles for a year back in the early ‘00s, and my dad came down for a visit for a few days. I took a day off from my corporate copywriting job for a web hosting company so that my father and I could go for a long, late morning walk up the Venice Beach boardwalk.
On our walk, we were passed by dozens of middle-aged LA ladies out for their mid-day exercise, with their taut faces and augmented breasts not moving as they jogged past.
“Daughter,” my father began, “There are many methods of maintaining one’s youthfulness. What we’re witnessing today is some of the least effective.”
“Ok, dad,” I rolled my eyes at him. “I get it. You don’t like plastic surgery.”
“It’s not that I don’t like it,” he said. “It’s just that the external methods of maintaining youthfulness just don’t work very well. The internal methods are much more effective.”
There in my mid-20s , I used his comment as justification for my potty humor and coarse language. Talking like a surly teenager was an internal method of maintaining youthfulness, right?
Now that I’m the same age of many of the ladies who were jogging past us, I understand my father’s comment in a different way. If you want to maintain your youthfulness, it’s not about how you look — it’s about how you feel.
And for me, the best way to maintain the feeling of my youth is to feel, well, stupid. This means that the best way to maintain my youthfulness isn’t botox or hyaluronic acid (although sure, those too) but rather consciously choosing to do things that make me feel dim.
It’s a form of training, really… Stupid Training.
Stupid Training: proactively choosing to feel dumb
The older I get, the more my brain wants to tell me I’ve got it figured out. Oh that? I’ve seen that a million times. Her? I know the type. That situation? Been there done that!
This sensation of know-it-all-ness feels deeply reassuring to my ego, of course. Yes, it murmurs to me from the back of my skull, We’ve got it all figured out. No cause for concern: we know everything there is to know, and will use this knowledge to control everything so that we are secure and safe.
Aww, ego! I know you’re just tryna do your job (thanks for that!) but I see you up to your tricks. You’re trying to keep me feeling safe, but if it was up to you, I’d also feel rigid, fixed, afraid, and bitter. If something good happens, lock it down. If something bad happens, paint myself into a corner so it never happens again.
Pass! I tried that life, and it felt constricted and boring, anxious and hard. It felt exhausting.
The greatest education I’ve gotten in these past few years has been during the times when I felt the absolutely stupidest. These days, the only thing I really know I know is that I don’t know shit. When the rug gets yanked out from underneath you and you fall on your ass so hard that you break your metaphorical coccyx, it’s humbling AF and all you can do is pick yourself and figure out what you can learn.
For me, the sensation of not knowing tastes like failure — if only I’d tried harder, studied more, worked more diligently, worried more, then I could have controlled the outcome.
HA HA, joke’s on me.
Or the joke’s on all of us, really. We all do this.
Knowing that life will just keep kicking all of us on our asses, I now try to practice a little bit of stupid all the time. If I practice failing in little doses, maybe I can make the big failures more tolerable?
With Stupid Training, you make the choice to put yourself into vulnerable positions where you’re at the bottom of the totem pole, in part because it keeps your ego in check and keeps your brain nimble.
Psychologically, you can think of stupid training as neuroplasticity fitness. It’s good to dismantle your ego a little bit, in small doses. It hurts less when the big punches come. My hope is that it hurts less when the biggest punch comes (death, hi!) but I’ll have to report back to you on that one.
Spiritually, Stupid Training is a time-honored practice — really, it’s just another way of saying beginner’s mind, the ancient buddhist practice of finding wisdom in uncertainty. Stupid Practice keeps your mind in its place, supple and liberated from your ideas about what you know and who you are.
A short list of things I’ve have done in the past few years to practice feeling stupid:
Swam laps by myself even though I am an extremely weak swimmer who finds pools intimidating. (I stood by the edge of the pool for so long looking so confused that the lifeguard came over and asked me if I was ok.)
Self-published a first-person erotic novelette despite the fact that I don’t read erotica, have never written erotica, and have never self-published a book. (Spoilers: it lost money, and that’s ok.)
Started lifting weights at age 42, which was terrifying because I’d never spent any time in gyms and didn’t know the name of any of the gym equipment, or the anatomy I was using. (Ask me about how, two years later, I just got checked for doing my squats all wrong. Stupid Training is ongoing!)
Apologized more often, using a four-part apology structure I originally learned for my kid, but now try to model using all the time (I’m sorry for ___, It was wrong because ___, Next time I will ___, Do you forgive me?)
Started meditating, first claiming it was only a mental health practice, and then finally admitting that ok fine I had gone the full woo and become totally spiritual in middle age. (Who wants to talk about non-duality and multiverses and godslices and stuff?)
Stopped defending myself online. (Wow, what a relief it is to just be like “Thanks so much for letting me know. You’re right, I screwed that one up.”)
Part of how I’ve been able to do this is by rewiring my brain to understand that the sensation of stupidity (I feel dumb! People are judging me! I’m judging myself! I look incompetent!) as the sensation of neuroplasticity (I’m learning! I’m forming new synapses! I’m an old dog learning new tricks! I’m modeling for my child what it looks like to be graceful when you’re struggling!)
That discomfort when you try something new and fall on your face? That’s what it feels like when your brain is forming new synapses.
Part of what Stupid Training has taught me is that the discomfort of feeling dumb is actually just the friction of my ego (goal: know everything and feel safe!) rubbing up against my brain (goal: stay alive and grow new synapses!) and my soul (goal: experience authentic, enlivened, truly joyful moments!).
The friction between these three internal aspects can feel uncomfortable… or you can just view it as a hot threesome between mind, body, and spirit, and enjoy the awkward tangle of elbows and knees as the cost of admission.
If I’m too focused on feeling competent and staying safe, I deny myself the experience of learning, growing, changing, and actually experiencing my life — all key traits of what I enjoyed about my youth!
Youthfulness felt fresh and new and full of first-times… and if you’re diligent about your Stupid Training, your life can always be fresh and new and full of first-times, even if you’re not young at all.
That’s the idea anyway.
But how do you eat humble pie while also bringing home the bacon?
The place where this shit gets really complex for me is in my career: I’m known for my service writing! For 15 years, it’s been my job to tell people (mostly women) what to do (mostly about weddings, but also about the rest of their lives).
The first draft of From Shitshow To Afterglow was strictly a memoir because I felt so strongly that I was no longer qualified to tell anyone what to do.
During the book’s development, I fought to get away from my old identity as someone who tells other people what to do. I know all too well that if you’re not careful, giving advice can become a way to delegate doing the work to others, so that you can avoid doing your own.
…And yet, here I am four years later, and the final draft of Shitshow is half advice. Every round of revisions came with notes from my editor “Less about your process, more about what the reader should do.”
It’s a weird thing, tryna dismantle your ego, while also trying to maintain a career. The way I’ve been able to navigate it is by thinking of all advice I write as notes to myself.
If I don’t do it, don’t dish it.
If I can’t be living it, don’t be giving it.
If I can’t walk it, don’t talk it.
And so, even this post is a form of Stupid Training: can I write about a difficult thing, on a new platform that I still don’t fully understand, without a fully formed content strategy?
My brain says no, and my soul says GO!
GOSSIPY END NOTES:
Thanks to all of you who are following along! I’m up to 28 paying subscribers, and I’m so tickled! I think I’ll be writing free posts for a few weeks, and then switching to mostly posts for subscribers, but with maybe a post a week for free followers? Not sure! Preparing to fall on my face! Wheeeee!
Only paid subscribers can leave comments on Substack, and I hope y’all will take full advantage of that benefit! (Free followers can just reply to emails, and that’s cool too.)
One of the other notes my book editor gave me (in addition to “more advice!”) was that I needed to significantly edit my parents out of Shitshow. “Most of us don’t have emotionally supportive parents,” she said. “It makes you less relatable.” She’s probably right and I did what she asked, but also it made me sad. Also, this is my newsletter and I can talk about my parents as much as I want here HA HA HA.