Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash
I spend a fair amount of time being self-reflective. I enjoy identifying things about myself I want to improve and implementing a plan to change. This process often stalls at the identification stage and I end up slowly drowning under a pile of my own personal garbage. My ability to identify problems seems to outpace my ability to make changes. I pass through this cycle every few months and eventually the overwhelm set in. This process is familiar enough now that I’ve developed an effective method of dealing with it: I let myself freak out and then I sit down and make a list and a plan. The list summarizes my current problems and the plan figures out how to deal with them.
I have a pretty good, general idea of the person I’m striving to be and the direction I need to face in order to make progress. As long as I’m brutally honest with myself, this usually makes my lists fairly easy. I have certain attributes and skills that I think are important ingredients in shaping my “ideal self”. Whenever I sit down to make my overwhelm list, I focus in on the items that are most neglected and causing me the most stress. With varying effectiveness, I then go about trying to work on those things. It’s not a complex process, but it works for me.
After a recent cycle of overwhelm, I decided to go back and read some of my older lists. I was both impressed and embarrassed at what I noticed. Negative self-talk had seen some great improvement and incidents of self-loathing were down about 75% from five years ago. I was also happy to see that after years of frustration over not meditating regularly, I was on a 74 day streak of a daily seated practice. I let myself celebrate these victories with some dark chocolate (another improvement over the dill pickle chips of previous years).
Not surprisingly, along with the progress I also noticed a couple persistent items that showed up on almost every list. There seemed to be two skills that I believe are deeply important in shaping the person I want to be, yet they’ve remained untouched:
I don’t play an instrument and I don’t speak a second language.
To me, these facts feel like deep faults in my character. These aren’t life-threatening flaws by any means and it’s likely most people wouldn’t consider them “flaws” at all. I suspect the majority of the population doesn’t play an instrument (proficiently) or speak a second language (fluently). Even fewer people have mastered both. Regardless of the statistics, these are two skills that I deeply value and want to internalize. I don’t have a good reason as to why I haven’t made the jump to pick a language, pick an instrument and master them, but I do know it’s a source of dissonance that I’m repeatedly pulled to reconcile.
Throughout my life I’ve tended to surround myself with friends and partners who are more intelligent and skilled than I am. This definitely has it’s advantages and constantly challenges me. Almost all of the people who I’ve admired and respected have either been bilingual, musicians or both. Sure, I have my own contributions and skills, but I’ve also observed how a deeper knowledge of language or music has shaped my friends in a way that I was missing.
To me, these people seem more objective, are better problem solvers, are more creative and less dogmatic. Many of them even explicitly tie those attributes to lessons learned in music or language. I admire these people and often feel like an outsider. I’m able to absorb some of their wisdom, but only in a secondary way and usually with a side effect of imposter syndrome.
In truth though, it isn’t specifically the skills of speaking a second language or playing an instrument that I want, even though they do seem ridiculously cool. I see these skills as character-shaping tools and it’s the changes in character that I want. I want to be more objective and creative. I wanted to be smart and open-minded. I want to be like the people I surround myself with, respect and admire.
I don’t have a good answer to why I haven’t learned to play an instrument or speak a second language. They’ve been cropping up on my overwhelm lists for years and are a constant source of disappointment for me. As an adult, I’m now faced with the responsibility of learning these skills on my own. The time has passed for me to swiftly and effortlessly absorb these skills as a child. I now have to find the time, motivation and finances to become proficient and fluent in skills that both take years and thousands of hours to master. I know I can learn another language. I know I can learn to play an instrument. Now, it seems like it’s time to make an updated plan.