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Taking that First Step into the Unknown

Self-improvement guru Tony Robbins advises that if you’re not planning something in your life right now that scares the living daylights out of you, you’re not doing life optimally. That may seem a little extreme and frightening to many of us, but how else will we move ahead, let alone keep up with the competition? Some of the benefits of stepping into the unknown are building new neural pathways, seeing new ways of understanding our lives, meeting new people who ease us on our way, and giving us novel ways to get to where we want to go. It’s not that old/known is bad, but new/unknown is what will open doors to places we’ve never imagined.

Many years ago, when I played in the Milwaukee Symphony under globe-trotting conductor/composer Lukas Foss, he would make a point of trying different ways of performing pieces that we’d all played since we were beginning our orchestral careers. “We can’t play these pieces like they’re an old shoe,” he would say. “We need to find new ways to make them interesting and powerful.”


There was a lot of grumbling among some of the musicians, who probably thought he was making them think and/or work way too hard, but in the end, I felt his approach usually made for more exciting and meaningful performances.


To illustrate this point, I remember one performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, certainly a member of the “war horse” team of orchestral literature, but well loved nevertheless. Lukas channeled Tchaikovsky like nobody’s business, and this concert was on steroids. We arrived at the last movement, a barn burner if there ever was one, and in the middle of it, he put down his baton, hugged himself, and grinned to the very end. We barreled through to the final chord, at which point he rejoined us and gave the final cut off. The audience was immediately on their feet in ovation after ovation. They had never seen anything like this!


This may not seem like a big deal on the surface, but it was a risk. First of all, the musicians weren’t expecting it, so how did he know things would go okay? Second, conductors have big egos, they just do, and to telegraph to the world that you’re not necessarily essential to the process of putting on concerts goes against that conventional wisdom. And third….it’s simply not done. Orchestras are a very conventional and conservative institution, the conductor doesn’t just stop conducting in a performance, for god’s sake!


Conductor/composer Lukas Foss

But this small act made everyone feel good, gave them something to marvel and talk about, and released something else that was readable in their eyes: wonder. And that look of wonder is usually only found in the wheelhouse of small children.


Adults generally hate stepping into the unknown. We get to a point in our lives where everything is sort of functioning okay, and we stop there. Why should we mess up what took us years to get to and is working relatively well? Don’t rock the boat, steady as she goes, everything’s going just fine…..and if not, things will get better without my having to take any risks.


If you observe children for even a few minutes, you know that, for most of them, change is what they’re all about. There are of course some who feel held back, for whatever reason (e.g. author Elizabeth Gilbert recounts how when she was little, she couldn’t stand being at the beach and seeing people go into the water, wondering why everyone couldn’t just sit quietly and safely on their respective towels), but most kids want to explore! To find out more about this amazing thing called life! To see what happens if.


In 2006, my husband Larry and I were invited to go to Vietnam to participate in an artist residency program in Hanoi. We discussed it, and immediately saw several problems with committing to three months in a faraway land. For one thing, as freelancers, we would have no income. We shelved the idea and went back to our safe and predictable lives.


But Vietnam would not leave us alone. The person who had invited us kept calling with more ammunition about why we should go. One of Larry’s photography mentors told him not to miss the opportunity. Pieces began to fall into place, like a perfect sitter for our cats, without us doing anything to put them there. We were running out of excuses not to go, and before you knew it, we were on a plane to South Korea, and then on to Hanoi.


Our time in Vietnam didn’t end after the three initial months we were there. We went back many times, having made some close Vietnamese friends who are still among our most treasured humans. We became involved with learning about the coffee industry, raised money for a women’s microloan program, and put on art exhibits and concerts. Larry produced a stunning photography book, “The Soul of Vietnam”, which is still being sold today. Our understanding of the ancient and complex culture grew, and some Vietnamese have come to the U.S. to visit us! It has been one of the richest experiences of our lives, and we almost missed it.


Once we’re in the groove of adulthood, it’s very difficult to pull out of our everyday routine. We actually have to work at it. Like everyone around me, I am guilty of sticking to what I know. It helps to have a life partner who is constantly looking for ways to grow, change, learn. But even if you don’t, begin to look for ways every day to change the pattern of your life.


Experiencing the unknown doesn’t have to take a lot of effort. My father was certainly no example of someone who stepped into the unknown. He would eat the same breakfast every day (eggs and toast), he was punctual to a fault when it came to going to work and coming home again, he paid his bills on Saturday mornings, seated at our dining table, etc. However, there was one thing he consistently did that I have taken to heart and tried to emulate: he never went the same way twice, if he could help it. Driving around our suburb, going on walks, even going long distances for vacations - he always looked for an alternate route to the one he had taken to get somewhere.


As an adult, I asked him why he did this, and he replied, “You never know what you’re going to see, who you’re going to run into, what you’ll learn that you didn’t know before!” Weird, Dad, how come you don’t do your whole life that way? It was one of the times I saw passion in my father’s eyes, something I saw when he would plan my mother’s and his trips around the world.


Every journey begins with one step. Commit to yours today by taking that step into something that’s unfamiliar, that you’ve never done, that people around you would think is crazy (that’s often a good indicator that you’re on the right track!). And see what happens.


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