When I was a bright, energetic little girl, all of my young friends would do cartwheels on the grass during recess. Despite how amazingly cool I always thought it was, I just couldn’t “get it.” I did try to learn in the ONE gymnastics class I took (before I decided I was too scared to take any more). I tried it at home sometimes too, but what I got was more of a sideways rolling than a cartwheel. As the years went on, I turned the pages from the chapters of playful youth to the chapters of my responsible adulthood. I stopped attempting cartwheels. I focused more on my career than the “silly” things that might bring me joy. I decided that since I was unable to tap into this skill as a limber and energetic child, it was probably just a skill I would never acquire. Like most adults, the fact that I couldn’t do a cartwheel didn’t really affect my day to day.
Until I met Julie Simon. Julie is a dance teacher, and unwittingly, a philosopher, mentor, and the most energetic adult I have ever met. I started taking dance classes with her to shed some pounds. I ended up shedding an entire former self. You see, every week when I would attend Julie’s dance class, she would inevitably erupt into joyous freestyle dancing, which would sometimes erupt into spontaneous cartwheels across the floor. One by one, all the other students (grown up women and men) giggled and eagerly participated, except me. I didn’t want to try something I knew I would fail, so I would just slump my shoulders down and hope she didn’t notice that I was the only person in the room walking across the floor. Of course she did. Julie, who would usually only express enthusiastic compliments, made it very clear that she was so over my slumped shoulders. The ecstatic grin would disappear from her face as she looked directly into my eyes and pleaded, “Give me SOMETHING!” Those words penetrated my responsible adult façade, reaching deep into the pit of forlorn childhood dreams.
So, one Friday night, in my 29th year of life, I was home alone when I decided it was time for me to teach myself something I had always wanted to learn: how to cartwheel. I was newly single, I was home alone, and I needed a break from working on my graduate studies research. So I proceeded to project myself toward the floor, head and hands first. Over and over, I tried reconnecting into the movement that I vaguely remembered from my childhood attempts. I banged myself up on the hardwood floor a bit, but at some point, minutes or hours later, I got it!
Somehow I unlocked a new skill that I had been telling myself I was incapable of learning. This experience changed my perception of what was possible. Countless stories and examples just like this violate the traditional account of learning and development in adulthood. For years, Dr. Ellen Langer has been producing research that demonstrates how cognitive labels and expectations for aging can shape outcomes that we always assumed were impossible of changing such as visual acuity, cognitive ability, memory, functional health, and perceptions of aging . One of my favorite studies examines a group of elderly men who were removed from their nursing homes and placed in a “retreat” home where they were surrounded by paraphernalia from the era of their young adulthood: television programs, newspapers, even the topic of their conversation had to be based in that era. It was like they had turned the back the clock 22 years. As it turns out, the health and ability of the participants reflected the changes in their mindsets. After just 5 days in this setting, participants actually started to act and feel young again, and many of their cognitive and physical skills improved over the course of this time. This and other studies by Dr. Langer and her colleagues suggest that the skills we grow and learn over time may have less to do with age and more to do with mindset.
Ever since I unexpectedly acquired the skill of cartwheels in my adulthood, my perspective has changed. I’m less likely to consider anything impossible. I’m more likely to try something new and let myself struggle through it because I know that progress comes with commitment and effort. On this note, I encourage you to reflect on the goals and dreams you have for yourself. Allow yourself the option to daydream, at least to consider: in a world where anything is possible, what do you most want for yourself?
What is one action you can take towards living the impossible today?
1. Langer, E. J. (2009). Counterclockwise. Random House Digital, Inc.