How Learning Something New Made Me More Confident and Optimistic

Trying one new thing helped my whole life feel more purposeful.
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Trying one new thing helped my whole life feel more purposeful.

All of us think about trying something new. We think that new workout class or painting seminar could be exciting, a nice change of pace, educational and culturally enriching. Despite ourselves, though, we often shy away from new things because, well, they're new and different (read: intimidating). 

I've always struggled with identifying my talents, and I blamed this on the cruelty of genetics, fate, and a perpetual lack of perseverance. In grade school, I made a career out of trying new sports and instruments, only to quickly realize that I had neither the natural ability nor the motivation required to succeed in any of these endeavors. I found it much easier to stay in my comfort zone.

Our comfort zone is “a psychological/emotional/behavioral construct that defines the routine of our daily life,” psychologist Abigail Brenner explains. It is not a terrible thing to stay in our comfort zone; at the same time, if we never leave, we may be missing out on a lot of new experiences and challenges necessary to helping us grow.

Invigorated by this possibility, I decided to revisit one of my many previous (and failed) attempts to make a serious hobby out of Irish dance. I took lessons when I was a child for a few years, but I never made it far enough to participate in the glamorous feises or wear the fancy dresses with the ridiculously huge curly wigs. Fast forward almost two decades, and I've finally decided to pick up where I left off—or rather, start from the beginning again—with dance lessons. It's perhaps a bit unorthodox, but the benefits I gleaned from this new venture have surprised me in more ways than I could have imagined.

01. I found a sense of purpose and achievement.

I’m a “doer” by nature, and I find a deep sense of accomplishment in completing a task. Thus, every time I “completed” an Irish dance class, I felt an immense sense of achievement. Checking off an entire list of cleaning and work to-dos simply does not compare to the feeling of accomplishment I felt every time I tended to this personal endeavor—a thing I wanted to do, not something I had to do.

With my track record of ditching things, I knew that I needed accountability help so I enlisted my two sisters-in-law to take the class with me. While we were all a little bit hesitant and scared that we would make fools of ourselves, we were in it together, and this made all the difference. Yes, we were pretty horrible that first week…and the subsequent weeks. But having found the right people to help me break out of my rut, encourage me, and motivate me, I was able to stick it out and continue with classes even when I did not want to.

As the weeks dragged on, I found myself feeling a new sense of purpose, feeling good about my achievements, and I even started to look forward to each new class. Yes, you read that right. Of course it helped that the dance studio was conveniently located above an Irish pub, making the early, clumsy lessons more sufferable—there was something to look forward to after each lesson!

02. I recognized the skills I already possessed.

Learning something new, I discovered, contributed to a sense of contentment with my current state in life, and it helped alleviate negative feelings I had about myself. I soon felt happier with who I am, rather than an idea of who I want to be but am not.

It is often true that no one is harder on us than ourselves. By learning a new skill, I became a little easier on myself, cutting myself slack in other areas of my life. I realized that, yes, I have many skills. Despite my insistence that I was born without them, my newfound talent actually gave me cause to reflect on all the skills that I do have, including those strengths that are not tangible, such as my faith, my organization, and my ability to be generous with others. My new skill somehow shined light onto the mosaic that is the bigger picture of my life.

03. My newfound talent increased my confidence.

I never thought I would have ended up in Chicago competing against other adult Irish dancers. But there I was! I was able to do just this thanks to the confidence I gained from ten months of Irish dance classes.

After all my childhood years of giving up and failing, I finally stuck with something. For someone who has never received an award for anything (other than, say, my Literature class), I could not have been more thrilled with myself and with my team for receiving fourth place in the adults’ ceili competition.

But a prize even greater than my fourth-place medal was my newfound confidence. According to psychologist Maud Purcell, the trick to gaining confidence is not just trying something new, but sticking with it. She explains, “true confidence develops from an increasing belief that you can rely on yourself to take action and follow through, no matter what the result.” A priceless award I never expected was this growing faith in myself.

04. I became a more positive person.

It's stunning to me how, by taking something as simple as dance lessons, I found myself better equipped to overcome mundane fear and negativity. I also found myself returning home to my husband in a newfound relaxed manner (not my natural state). Dancing became my stress reliever. For one, it was an attention-shifter; as in, how could I worry about bills and work and my messy house during the moments I was focusing on was which foot was supposed to be in front on which count?

According to psychologist Dr. Stephanie Smith, “a new hobby can be a great stress reliever. Why? Because it helps us break out of our normal patterns of behavior. And even better it gives our brains something to think about other than the same old same old worries.” There has been research showing that learning new skills outside our comfort zone results in increased memory and a more healthy mind overall. I found my stress level significantly decreased, and I replaced this stress about work and finances and family with a newfound joy. 

05. I was able to pursue even more new things.

As a result, I later found myself pursuing other activities I’m not sure I would have pursued otherwise. I started attending a Bible study where I knew hardly anyone. I became active in a young adults social group (where, again, I knew very few people). I started actively pursuing my old hobbies and passions, such as writing and photography. I started trying new recipes and pursuing more creative endeavors in my home and in my work. 

Perhaps most of all, acquiring my new Irish dancing skill has helped me to embrace, rather than lament, the fact that I’m only human. All that is required of us is to do our best and to be our best, beautifully imperfect as that may be. I possess a newfound sense of pride in where I am right now at this stage of my life. I no longer dwell on past failures or fixate on the unrealistic expectations I have a tendency to place in front of me. I never knew kicking and clicking across a dance floor could make me feel as grounded as I now do on so many levels. I could have never expected how reaching beyond my comfort zone would make me feel more solid in my skin. 

Photo Credit: Peoria Playhouse