So, I had a thought yesterday, while I was sitting and thinking…
How would my thought process be, if I wrote with my left hand? I’m right-handed, and now and then I’ve tried writing with my left hand, over the years, but I never stuck with it long enough to get anywhere.
Now I’m thinking it might be a good way to job my brain to learn something new.
And it might be a good way to get me thinking along different lines than usual.
It’s funny — whenever I tried it before, I always gave up because it felt like I couldn’t write with my left hand. Now I feel more like, I can’t write wellwith my left hand. I can write — it just doesn’t look great. But just ’cause it doesn’t look great, doesn’t mean I can’t do it.
And my left-handed writing actually looks like my one left-handed sibling’s writing, when they were a kid. So, if they could learn to write that way, I can, too.
It’s a little like juggling. When I first started out, I couldn’t do it at all. But I practiced and practiced, and eventually I was able to do it. Now I can juggle three same-sized objects with a fair amount of skill. It’s really just brain training. And sure enough – after just a little practice yesterday, my penmanship was noticeably better. Also, it felt easier to write in cursive with my left hand, than in the hybrid writing style of my right hand.
Interesting. I’ll do some more practice today — right now, in fact. I’m working at home today, again, because while my cough is better, it’s still around, and I need to be able to rest during the day.
Before I start with work-work, I’ll practice my left-handed penmanship. And I’ll keep an eye out for any different ways my thinking starts going, as I write with my non-dominant hand. I’ve tried training my left hand to do various things, sometimes favoring it completely and trying to not use my right hand at all. But it was hard. So, I gave up.
I don’t feel like giving up. Not right now, anyway.
An odd thing has happened with me, since I had my contract renewed at work. After being relieved and elated that I wasn’t going to have to go searching high and low for another job, the surge in energy left me feeling pretty depleted… and also depressed.
That happens with me — I run a lot of energy — I “run hot” — and then when I run out of steam, my energy ebbs, and my mind gets to thinking that I feel like crap because my life is crap, and everything is wrong and nothing will every be right again. It’s sorta kinda like bipolar stuff on the surface, but fundamentally, it’s about me being tired, my brain getting irritable, and my head jumping to wrong conclusions about how crappy life is in general.
It’s not true. It’s just me being tired. And getting a lot of extra rest solves that issue — which is what I did this past weekend. I rested. And my depression went away.
Anyway, last week I got upset that I’m no longer a technical whiz, that I’m not doing the type of programming I used to do, and that I kept (and keep) getting calls and emails from recruiters about technical jobs that I want to take, but can no longer do.
The money is better in technical positions, that’s for sure. And it’s a simpler way of life that doesn’t involve navigating the choppy waters of human interaction. But I just can’t do it, anymore. My brain doesn’t work like that anymore. I’m out of practice. And even the simplest examples which are given for “dummies” don’t make any sense to me.
Insert giant sad-face here.
The thing that gets me even more than the money and type of work, is that ever since my fall in 2004, I have not had that kind of immersive focus in my work that I used to have. I used to have a “zone” I would go to, when I was deep in coding, when I was deep in the experience and working smoothly and confidently. But that hasn’t been anywhere in sight (except for some occasional times), for over 10 years.
And that’s the loss I feel the most keenly. It’s heart-breaking. I used to love that way of working and feeling, and now it’s gone. Like a pinkie finger that got cut off. I can live and work without it, but I like all my fingers, and it just doesn’t feel the same.
So, rather than wallowing in that unhappiness and marinating in my discontent with something that isn’t likely to change in exactly the way I want it, I did some research. And I came across a book called “Flow” by a psychologist whose name I cannot pronounce. I watched some videos on YouTube and found the book at a local library, and I’ve been digging into it, a little bit at a time.
See, the thing that I miss is not so much the technical work, as it is the experience I used to have while doing the technical work. And after reading “Flow” a little bit, I now realize that what I miss is being in the “zone” — being able to concentrate completely on my work with total confidence and skill.
That’s what made that work magical, not just all the bits and bytes and algorithms.
So, that’s what I’m working on, these days — getting back to a zone state. Finding where I am really confident and skilled — even in the little things like washing dishes or fixing things around the house — and doing those things “in the zone”. Not zoning out, where I’m not present and I’m ignoring everything and everyone around me, but really being caught up in the amazingness of what I’m doing.
Finding that amazing quality to the world I live in, and really relishing the details — no matter how small.
Even the littlest thing, like brushing my teeth or sweeping the floor, can put me in the zone, if I have the right frame of mind. Or bigger things like doing my taxes or completing a project at work… that can give me a sense of Flow, as well.
It’s really the quality of experience I’m interested in. And out of that can then come a sense of mastery, which in turn feeds the desire for mastery in other areas of my life.
But I have to start somewhere, and then build from there.
So, that’s what I’m doing. I know what I’m missing, and I have a good idea how to restore that “zone” sense, that feeling of flow. It’s probably going to be different, of course, because my new work is different from my old. But maybe it will be quite similar.
This weekend has been a tough one. Looking back, I can think of 20 different things I could have done differently to make it easier and more enjoyable for myself, but I did the best I could, under the circumstances. I really should have exercised more… but that’s water under the bridge, and I was so stressed and nervous about how I will handle myself today when I give notice… I could really feel it, with my blood pressure surging, my anxiety at an all-time high, adrenaline pumping through my veins non-stop, and all the thoughts in my head going wild — not a good feeling.
I’ll be very happy when today is over, and I can start transitioning to my next job.
Last night, I started to bed early-ish (10:30) and had every intention of getting to sleep as soon as possible. I was so tired — wiped out — I thought I’d be able to easily fall asleep.
I tossed and turned for another hour… then past that… all the anxiety pumping through me, the sadness, the upset, the frustration, the anger, the resentment, the regret, the loss… all of it. I could not get comfortable AND my head would not shut up.
The same thing happened to me earlier on Sunday, when I tried to take a nap. It just wasn’t happening. So, I just lay there and tried to relax. It was something. But I really needed the sleep instead. Oh, well.
So, last night (or rather, this morning) as the clock ticked farther and farther past midnight, I read my Legends of the Samurai book. That always helps me put things in perspective. Reading about warriors who overcame odds and did an elegant job of it (or who screwed up and were disgraced, but still survived) is a great mental tune-up for me. The stories are so basic, so fundamental, so human. Stories of courage and cunning, betrayal and defeat, uprisings and victory… just the sort of things I need to read about, to put my own mind at ease.
The main thing is finding a way to not feel so alone. When I read about the obstacles those warriors had to overcome, all those hundreds of years ago, it reminds me that I’m not the only one who has to face these sorts of things — and yes, it can be done with intelligence and skill.
I don’t know how today is going to go for me. I’m sure it will be challenging.
If nothing else, it will be an experience.
I just need to stay strong, not let others beat me down and treat me like crap and take out their frustrations on me. I need to stand my ground and just do what needs to be done. And be quit of this multinational corporation that cares about me even less than it cares about its office furniture.
I’ve added a new piece to my morning/evening routines — when I am about to brush my teeth, I pull my toothbrush out of the holder and toss it from hand to hand. Sometimes I flip it around and try to catch it. Sometimes I can, sometimes I miss… drop it, and have to wash it thoroughly before I brush my teeth.
But I have noticed my hand-eye coordination improving. And my response times improve, as well. Also, I have noticed that I have been able to catch things that I start to drop more easily than ever before.
Like silverware falling out of my hands and headed for the floor — I have caught them several times.
Like a travel mug full of coffee that tipped over, and I was able to right before it spilled all over the place.
There have been a number of situations where my eye-hand coordination is definitely better than I can remember it being for a while – perhaps if ever. I was very active as a kid and played a lot of ball games, but I was a little spastic and had trouble coordinating my movements.
And I was convinced I could not juggle, because I was so “dorky”. I was convinced I was a lot of things (not all of them flattering) because of my coordination problems. My issues were probably a lot less than I believed they were, but because they didn’t match what I was expecting, I considered them terrible.
And I kept myself from doing a lot of things, because I figured, “Well, that’s just how I am, and I have to live with less as a result.”
Sad – pretty much of a waste.
Now things are different. Now I’m not convinced that anythingI believe about myself is actually true. I’m questioning it. Trying new things. And discovering more things about myself than I ever did before.
Juggling helps me. Even just tossing around a pen is beneficial. How?
It improves my eye-hand coordination. I am getting better at catching things I toss from one hand to another. And when I spin the thing(s) I toss, it challenges me. I have dropped a lot of things, but I am getting better.
It improves my self-control. When I drop things, I typically get very upset and start to blow up (inside mostly, sometimes outside). This is very disruptive. Knowing that I am practicing keeps it chilled out for me. Tossing a non-essential object, dropping it, and then practicing self-control and not flying off the handle, is helping me in my everyday life, when things go wrong unexpectedly.
It improves my sustained attention. I can focus for longer and longer periods of time. I notice that I drop things when my attention wanders. Focusing on the object I’m tossing from hand to hand for a few minutes… then a few more minutes… then a few more minutes… is helping me to stay focused longer.
It teaches me to block out distractions. This is different from sustaining my attention. It’s one thing to lengthen the amount of time I can focus single-mindedly on something. It’s another thing to know how to block out sudden distractions that pop up into my field of view, or come to mind. Most of my distractions actually come from inside my head. I’ll start thinking about something else… and then I’m toast. I drop what I’m trying to catch. Or I toss something in the wrong direction. Practicing tossing things from one side to another — and most of all practicing not getting my attention pulled away — has actually helped me a great deal.
Recently, a reader posted a comment:
I saw a documentary on the brain and neuroplasticity and heard that juggling tennis balls can improve executive function. I think it worked: It only took the (uninjured) guy in the movie one practice session to be able to juggle several tennis balls. It took about 2 months for me to be able to consistently juggle one ball. I could only do a few minutes once or twice a week because it used so much of my brain energy. After a few weeks I noticed my thinking seemed faster and switching between tasks was easier. There was also a measurable jump in my typing and reading speeds.
Now aprox 3 months later; I still do a few minutes, two times a week, but can use 2 balls. I just tested my typing speed again and it is aprox. twice as fast it was when I started the juggling exercise.
It’s worth a try: low cost, no side effects. Be aware that it took lots of patience and really used up a lot of brain enery when I started (so plan accordingly), but it got easier.
This is WAY cool. As they said, it is low cost and has no side effects — other than improvement in important areas.
It also takes a lot of brain energy at the start — I can also attest to that, because when I started tossing my toothbrush from hand to hand, first thing in the morning, I dropped it a lot, and spent a lot of time rinsing it off. (Why did I used my toothbrush? Because tossing something important raised the stakes and forced me to pay close attention.) It was very challenging when I started, to tell the truth.
But bringing in a tennis ball has expanded this — and it’s something I can do just about anywhere, just about anytime. In fact, I sometimes take a break at work to go to a quiet room and toss a tennis ball around. I may just add another ball to it and practice juggling.
Now, it’s all very well and good to learn how to juggle. It’s fun. It aids neuroplasticity. And it will be an accomplishment, if I ever manage it.
But the real benefit is not the juggling ability alone. It’s the psychological, experiential, and behavioral benefit I get from it.
Having better eye-hand coordination can reduce the number of “clumsiness events” in my life that not only drive me crazy but make me feel stupid and dim.
Being able to catch a tipping cup of coffee — that I can’t afford to spill — is a huge boost to myself-confidence. And it also spares me the internal storms of anger, range, frustration, and self-recrimination. It’s also good for my self-image, which can use a lot of help.
Being in better contact with the world around me, and having a more fluid interaction with my physical environment can offset the effects of my dizziness and the times when I am “off” — for one reason or another. Developing my coordination, my muscle memory, my ability to skillfully adapt to sudden changes in my environment… it’s all good, and it only helps me.
Overall, the strangely wonderful side-effects of tossing objects from one hand to another are helping me feel better about myself, feel like less of a klutz, and make me more relaxed and at-ease with the world around me.
Here’s an interesting revelation that’s come to me slowly but surely, over the past several years of learning to talk to people and learning how to pay attention and understand what the hell is going on around me — lots of people are completely full of sh*t, and they actually have no idea what they are doing… they just put on a good show and hope that everybody buys their “personal branding”.
That’s it in a nutshell. And it’s taken me close to 50 years to figure this out — largely because between my hearing issues and my short term memory failings (I lose most of what I’ve heard within a minute’s time, unless I actively listen and feed back what I’m hearing at regular intervals). I mean, for most of my life, I either wasn’t hearing what others were saying properly, or I was promptly forgetting what they were saying to me… all the while faking my way through life, hoping nobody would notice that I was completely out of it and clueless about what was going on around me.
Then I realized that I was having huge problems that were TBI-related.
Then I got some help with learning to listen and talk and discuss and process information.
Then I started to pick up on what is going on around me.
And now I realize that all the people whose opinions I have been so concerned about, actually don’t count for a whole lot, because they are huge poseurs who aren’t really on top of their game, no matter how they may pretend they are. All those opinions from people who aren’t actually real, to begin with, don’t count for sh*t.
A whole lot of people in my life are driven by insecurity and jealousy and emotions they don’t even realize they have, and rather than do something about themselves and their own condition, they’d rather tear down others. How pointless is that? Pretty pointless. They could be spending their time taking care of their own business and making their own performance and lives better, but they would much rather spend the time tearing everyone else down.
That’s my big revelation, which I have been aware of for a long time, but now it is really real, and now it feels real, and now I can confidently go about my own affairs, secure in the belief that I actually know better than others, what is best for myself and my own situation, and others’ opinions are not necessarily better, just because they say them forcefully.
One of the things that really brought this home to me, has been a project I’ve been working on, where I believed I needed to hire outside “pros” to do a certain job for me. As it turns out, some of the “trained professionals” who I was looking to, produced worse work than I would do myself. Total waste of time and a real disappointment. Lousy results. I’ve been talking to a lot of “pros” lately, trying to solve some pretty complex issues. But at every turn, it seems that I’m ahead of the game, and they are playing catch-up with me. I have had a number of in-depth conversations with people who have much more experience than me in certain domains, but I’m way ahead of them, in terms of strategic thinking and tactical approaches.
How ’bout that… Who woulda guessed it? I mean, seriously – I was really expecting much more from these folks. They present themselves so well on paper, and they have all the proper accoutrements to make a good impression, but when it comes time to thinking creatively and doing the work, they’re lagging far behind me. It’s crazy. These people get paid to do these things for a living, and I the amateur am actually more proficient at it than they.
If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re guessing that maybe I could go into those lines of business and clean up. Could be… But it actually makes more sense for me to do all these things for myself and save myself the professional services fees. I can literally save thousands of dollars this way, and that’s not a bad thing. I can also make sure things are done exactlythe way I want them to be done, which is critical. I have spent so much time trying to explain really basic things to people, it would have been faster and cheaper for me to do it all myself. Getting the right results has been a huge challenge. But if I do it myself, I know exactly what I’m getting.
So there we have it — bottom line is, I should do a lot of things myself and not hire others. If I need to get into massive amounts of work, then I’ll consider looking to others, but they have to be extremely good at what they do. They have to be better than me. For the time being, it makes more sense for me to do things by myself. More control, more influence, less cost, more fun. More results. More satisfaction.
I’ve been reading The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin, and (no surprises) I’ve been learning a lot. Waitzkin was a top-ranked chess player as a kid and young adult (he was the subject of the movie “Searching for Bobby Fischer”), then he moved on to the Tai Chi Chuan Push Hands martial art and became a national champion in that arena.
His revelation about his amazing success has been this — it’s not that he has innate talent either as a chess player or as a Tai Chi fighter, rather that he is exceptionally good at learning. And his approach to learning has enabled him to master not one but two highly demanding and competitive arenas. He’s even beaten Tai Chi opponents 50 pounds heavier than him — with his right hand broken.
Reading his book and learning about his approach – start slowly, master good form, then practice, practice, practice and use your losses as lessons – I can see a lot of similarities between his mastery of chess and Tai Chi and my own recovery from multiple TBIs. While in some areas (being able to put things together and come up with creative solutions) I have tested above average, on the whole I’d have to say I’m a regular person with more than my fair share of limitations. And defeats. And disappointments.
The thing is — and I’m realizing this now — all those limitations have been opportunities to learn and grow, and even if they don’t go away (I’ve had recurring headaches like I used to, for the past couple of weeks, some of them sickening and seriously numbing), the other areas I develop to compensate actually serve to put me out in front of where I might be, if everything were going well for me 100% of the time.
See, here’s the thing – we all have our “uneven” attributes. We don’t all come into this world with all our faculties 100% intact and 100% engaged. Life takes a lot of out of us, and we develop patterns and approaches that specialize in us developing certain aspects of ourselves and ignoring others, sometimes to the detriment of our overall happiness and ability to function and enjoy life. In many ways, a lot of us actually cripple ourselves in some ways, in the interest of strengthening ourselves in others. We use one side of our bodies predominantly, and the other side becomes weaker. We focus on work, to the detriment of our families. Or we focus on enjoying our lives to the detriment of our work. Workaholic or ski bum… rightie or leftie… and we end up with these uneven, asymmetrical lives that have considerable rewards on one hand, but on the other are dessicated and hollow.
And sometimes the only thing that snaps us out of that one-sided focus is when our dominant or masterful side is injured or damaged.
Then we are presented with several choices:
We can bemoan our fate and struggle and fight to keep things exactly as they were, by doing things exactly as we always have done… and possibly end up defeated and depleted and depressed.
We can “accept our limitations” and get used to having less of a life than we’d hoped for.
We can accept that life has thrown us a curve, and that things have turned out different… we’ve turned out different… and then we can set about finding the new ways and new strengths we can develop in order to get where we’re going.
We can hire someone to do everything for us.
We can pretend everything is fine, fudge our way through life, and battle the demons of “impostor syndrome” and a constant fear of being found out, while seeking out more and more ways to present the person we want to look like, while launching offensives against anyone who might expose us.
We can give up completely on the hope that things might ever get better and careen through life as “adventure seekers” without a care or consideration for anything of substance, while secretly believing a daredevil life is the best we can ever hope for.
We can tell ourselves that we’re so damaged that the best we can hope for is mediocrity. And that’s that.
Choices, choices. I’m sure there are more, but right now let’s work with the above collection.
I think personally I’ve progressed from 1 to 2 to 3 — and 3 is where I am now and it’s where I intend to stay. The way I got to 3, is by going from being an entity learner to an incremental learner. And entity learner is someone who gets things quickly, who masters certain tasks and concepts quickly, without much effort, while struggling with other things. They’re the kind of person who needs to “get it” all at once, not one step at a time. And if they have to work at it, piece by piece, they feel stupid and slow and don’t stick it out.
It’s all or nothing with an entity learner.
An incremental learner, on the other hand, takes things one step at a time. They start slow and then as they master one element after another, they grow and build mastery. They don’t see a challenge as a thing to overcome in one fell swoop, rather as an opportunity to learn. And they never stop learning.
I think of the difference between entity learners and incremental learners like the difference between people who “learn computers” and people who learn to type. People who “learn computers” are often easily intimidated when things don’t turn out right. They click a button, and something different happens than they expected. They click a link, and the web page does something they didn’t anticipate. They can get intimidated and give up easily. I have lots of friends who do this — they seem to have this idea in their minds that computers should “just work” and when they don’t “cooperate” they throw up their hands and dismiss the whole experience as defeating.
On the other hand, learning to type is an exercise in dull repetition of proper form. I learned to type in high school back in the dark ages, when we still had electric typewriters (remember the old IBM Selectrics with the type ball?) and it was probably the most boring-ass class I’d ever had. The most fun I had in it was sitting behind a guy who I partied with, who had about 1,000 well-thought-out reasons why Jimmy Paige was the best guitarist of all time. I heard about 578 of those reasons in that class, when I wasn’t hammering out a-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fa-s-d-fhour after ever-loving hour. But you know what? That dull repetition paid off, and when it came time to learn to use computers and code and what-not, the speed and technique with which I’d learned to type made all the difference in my basic ability to function. And that’s translated to steady work over the years.
Clearly, that incremental learning has paid off big-time.
Those same lessons of incremental learning now apply to my TBI recovery. When your brain is injured, you literally need to become an incremental learner all over again. You can’t get stuck in the old beliefs about being able to do a lot of the things you used to do, easily, simply, without effort. TBI recovery is very much an incremental learning process, with each person needing to attend to different aspects of their own functionality to:
Identify issues and weaknesses in everyday things that don’t work anymore
Identify better/different ways of approaching those everyday things
Find the “movements” or approaches that work (in slow motion)
Practice those movements to train the brain and the body to perform these new movements with increasing ability
Continuously reflect and examine the way things are going, to make corrections and fine new ways, if the ones you’re working with aren’t very productive
I truly believe that not being able to switch modes to incremental learner is what trips up so many TBI survivors. After all, there are many things we don’t even realize are messed up. So having decent feedback helps. It’s critical, in fact. I was fortunate enough to have checked my bank statements (for their own sort of feedback) at a time when my cognitive/behavioral issues (e.g., impulsiveness and cluelessness) were causing me to hemorrhage money. Those bank statements were clear feedback that something was amiss — Where’s all my money?
Likewise, working with my NP has been a regular source of feedback. My spouse has unfortunately not been very helpful, because they have set expectations of me (once high, now low) and when I do something unexpected, their feedback tends to be “entity-based” — either I nailed it, or I’m a loser. They have their own issues, and I can see that entity learner approach really holding them back in so many ways. But if someone isn’t 100% convinced that they have a right to 100% excellence, it’s tough to have constructive conversations about growth with them.
Well, never mind that. The point I’m trying to make is that when you’re an adult and you’ve got the hang of living life a certain way, then TBI comes along and mucks it all up, it can be easy to fall into entity learner paralysis. That’s what happened with me, and I also developed a healthy dose of learned helplessness. Because apparently I couldn’t do anything right, anymore.
But if you approach things as an incremental learner, which I have been working at, thanks to my NP and Give Back and all the TBI and human performance bloggers I follow, it totally turns things around, and rather than slips being catastrophes, they become lessons… investments in the future, provided I take the time to learn about them.
I’m still working on being open to those lessons. I’m still working on not getting too rigid with my expectations and outcomes. It’s a process which is not made easier by TBI or fatigue or any of the other sensory issues I encounter on a daily basis. But with incremental learning, that’s perfectly fine. Because with difficulty comes growth, and with practice comes mastery of one kind or another.
The main thing is to keep going, keep learning, and use each and every situation as fuel for the fire that burns with you and keeps you moving forward… backwards… side to side… and then forward again.