This weekend, I made some changes to my blog. I have been noticing that my website is incredibly difficult to navigate and having all of my poems listed on a page was just 1. hard to remember to update and 2. not cutting it anymore from the reader’s end due to the sheer number of posts I now have. I wanted to have a spot where I could place the categories that my blog posts could belong to, and there was not a very good spot for that in my old theme. That theme served me well, but it was time for it to go.
I changed it to my favorite theme I could find that includes a sidebar where I can put widgets. The one downside of this new theme is that it does funky things to the top of the post if an excerpt was including in the post settings, so I fixed that by just going through and removing all of the excerpts from all of my posts. I’m sure that there are other fixes, but I couldn’t find one quickly, and there were a few other things that I wanted to change in some of my posts, so I didn’t mind going through them one by one.
While I was looking at all of these old posts, I found a few that just didn’t match my website anymore or that I was no longer happy with. I kept a few of them listed, but reverted a few others to drafts, so if you were über-dedicated, you would notice that my post celebrating my 100th post is no longer my 100th post.
All of this took time, but not an insanely long amount of time. Nevertheless, it made me think about all the roles that I have on this website. Much like most of the people probably reading this, I am the author, editor, occasional photographer and graphic designer, and administrator of my website. I also am the one who reads and answers my comments and emails (at a very slow rate, sorry!) and the one who reads, likes, and comments on posts from other bloggers.
I like having all of these roles because of the amount of control it allows me to possess, but I definitely prefer some over others. I primarily think of myself as the writer of this blog and a reader of other blogs. Everything else that I do is just extra.
That said, I think I would have a really hard time passing those other roles off to other people. This blog has been mine and mine alone since its first day. It has had my fingerprints all over every aspect of it, and that makes me very happy.
I am nowhere near considering changing this from a one-woman-show, so those fingerprints will continue to be seen all over the site, but if I ever do decide to take on other team members, I think the first thing I will give up is the editing. I know for a fact that I miss things when I edit them myself because I have gone back to old posts that I read through many, many times before publishing them and found spelling and grammar errors that I did not catch. After that, I would probably look for someone with far more coding knowledge than me to customize the site layout more.
What are your preferred roles for your blog? Are there any that you would gladly pass off if you had the opportunity?
Has this ever happened to you? You’re using a colored pencil to draw when all of a sudden…SNAP! The tip breaks off leaving you with a useless shard and an imprecise, blunt drawing instrument. You decide to sharpen the pencil, but it’s not working. The wood is too soft or the lead is too fragile, and the tip keeps breaking off before you can taper it as much as you desire. Eventually, you give up because continuing to sharpen it is not granting you the results that you want. I mean, what is the point?
Sorry, I couldn’t resist. But now, on a more serious note…
Even though I write about creativity, compassion, and positivity, in real life, I am very much inclined to resign myself to futility. In fact, one could argue that the reason why I try to put such a positive, helpful spin on the articles that I write is to convince myself that altruism isn’t futile. I practice positive talk in my written words, hoping that I can incorporate more of it into my thoughts and the words I speak.
It’s hard sometimes.
It feels like the more you learn about any particular topic, the more you realize that change usually happens small and slow, without much impact coming from any single individual. Forget the Dunning-Kruger Effect with its “valley of despair.” Looking into any issue will at some point leave you in a valley of futility.
I had a brush with these negative thoughts last week shortly after I published my article A Self-Planned Education: What Would You Learn in a Decade?. I was nervous posting that article, but I quickly began to receive comments from people who enjoyed reading it and wanted to engage in interesting conversations about personally driven education. And then, just a few hours later, I received a notification that someone had linked to that blog post. This was not a share or a reblog. It was not someone who was inspired by my article and decided to write their own response to its fundamental question. Nor was it someone who disagreed with me who wanted to write about those differences. No, this was someone who had copied my work, changed a few of the words and phrases (many of which were changed so that they were no longer correct), and reposted it to their own website that was not in any way affiliated with WordPress. My copyright had been infringed.
I was frustrated, and that frustration prompted me to write this blog post, requesting advice. I wanted to take action.
I also knew that I should give myself a little while to actually consider what my next move should be. I always make kinder and overall better choices when I have given myself time to calm down from my initial emotions.
The next day, I did more digging into the website where my content was reuploaded, and found that this was the way that they get all their content. I couldn’t find a single article that was originally written for this website. I also couldn’t tell whether any of the people who post to this website hold the copyrights on any of the material.
In that moment, I felt a sense of futility. I could pump hours and hours into getting my post taken down and still not make a dent in the stolen material on the site. My efforts likely wouldn’t prevent the same website from stealing copyrighted content in the future. I don’t have the ability to take any sort of legal action right now, either, so the results of any action I could take would be small at best. What was the point of pouring my energy into this if the best-case scenario consequences would be so tiny?
Like I said, this feeling of futility is common-place for me. I presume that it’s very common for a lot of other people, too.
Here’s a different example: consider the low-waste movement. One person switching from single use paper coffee cups to bringing their own reusable cup to the coffee shop is not going to make a big difference. What’s the point if my individual actions only save a single tree from being cut down throughout my whole lifetime?
To me, it seems counter-intuitive that digging into the research about social, animal, and environmental issues could have the effect of dissuading me from action rather than encouraging it, but that has been my experience. In our modern times, even well-intentioned actions can reap negative consequences because of how complicated and interconnected the world is. (No spoilers, but The Good Place explores this issue in a really fascinating and entertaining way. I highly recommend that show.) What’s the point of taking positive actions when they might have negative repercussions, anyway?
There are several points, but I’ll only speak about three of them. First of all, a lot of small actions can lead to much bigger changes. If large numbers of people each eliminated the need for a single tree to be chopped down for their paper use, that could add up to a whole forest-worth of trees that no longer need to be felled. If every content creator who had their work reposted on the same website as mine took action, we could cause the website to shut down or at least pivot to original content.
“You can’t do all the good that the world needs, but the world needs all the good that you can do.“
Secondly, standing up for yourself and your values has its own intrinsic worth. I’ve noticed that when my actions align with my ideals, I feel better. I have more self-esteem.
Finally, people who see you taking positive actions in kind and relatable ways might be encouraged to take their own small steps. Most people want to do good in the world, but it’s hard to know how. Your example might be the thing that prompts them to action.
In a poem that I wrote for this blog but never ended up posting, I crafted the lines “I know that it’s not enough just to say these words./I know that my thoughts and prayers are just as empty/As those mouths that they promise to feed.” I constantly need to remind myself that good intentions are not enough. They must lead to good actions.
With my stolen content, saying that I am against copyright infringement is not enough. I must actively try to get the copyrighted material removed.
In the case of the website that reposted my copyrighted content, I don’t think that enough people will request their own take downs from them to make any real change. After all, most of the articles they steal come from big news sites that likely have much larger and more pressing legal issues to deal with. However, standing up for myself and getting my article removed sends them a message that I am not okay with them taking my content, and it tells me that I am willing to fight for my rights as a content creator. Leaving up the post that talks about my stolen article shows other people that they are not alone in having their content taken, that the WordPress community will support them in their efforts to stand up for their rights as copyright holders, and that standing up for yourself in this way will (hopefully) result in some actions from the people who stole the material.
A story that I read at the end of last week, “The Best of All Summers” by Bobby Stevenson, contains these words “‘Don’t you ever believe that what we did was in vain, son. Never think that…Nothing is in vain. Always, always remember that. Everything matters.'” (I highly recommend reading the whole story for the context.) Actions that align with your beliefs and values matter. They produce effects. Those effects might be smaller or different than what you want or expect, but they are present. All we can do is to keep taking these actions to become better people and make society better, monitoring the results of those actions, and changing our approach when it isn’t working. That is the point.
Recently, I have been on a mission to read or reread every article that I have bookmarked on my computer. I’m a bit of an article hoarder, guys, so this process has already taken me a few weeks of reading at least one article per day, and will likely last much longer. Add onto that the fact that I keep adding to my article list with resources I have found for upcoming blog posts, and there’s a good chance that this an-article-a-day habit will have to go on indefinitely.
One article that I rediscovered earlier this week was this one written by self-proclaimed author, programmer, and entrepreneur, Scott H. Young. I remember reading this article along with a close friend back in 2017, and we used its basic question, What would you learn if you had a decade of time to commit to your education and a small stipend to cover your expenses? to discuss the things that we hoped to learn in the future. I don’t think I still have the list I created back then, but I do know that my answers must have changed over time.
I want to create a new personal 10-year curriculum on here, both as an exercise in seeing what a decade of learning might look like for me and so that I can look back on my ideas 1, 5, or 10 years in the future.
Please note that, even if I don’t say so explicitly, most of these subjects and skills would be learned concurrently. The time frames are more of a helpful way to represent the percentages of the decade that I would dedicate to each area, not to indicate that I would complete X months of a certain topic before moving onto a new one.
1 Year Learning Survivalist Skills
This is the one place where I am going to contradict the note that I just made above. I think that it would be worth devoting a full year learning certain skills that could perhaps come in handy during the remainder of the decade.
This initial year would be devoted into furthering my self-protective survival skills as well as learning how to help other people in tough situations. I certainly would want to know more about edible vs. poisonous plants in different parts of the world, how to construct a well, how to build a shelter, how to start a fire, and the basics of first aid. I would also throw in here how to sew because of its application in repairing clothing and other supplies that I might need and the possibility of using the skill to put in stitches for a wound in a pinch.
This is a decade-long education plan, not a plan to go out and save the world, so I do not wish to imply that I would spend the remaining nine years deliberately putting myself in danger. There is simply the possibility that these skills will be required of me at some point during the decade, so I would want to learn them early in the timeline. And even if these skills never become a necessity, I still think that they would be interesting to acquire in order to be more self-reliant.
4 Years Traveling
Traveling throughout the world and taking the time to meet and get to know people from other regions and cultures would be supremely helpful in deepening one’s understanding of others’ perspectives.
Within the decade, I would like to take 1 year traveling to various locations within the United States, 1 year traveling to other anglophone countries, 1 year traveling to various non-English speaking locals, and 1 full year stationed in an area where I will be forced to learn a new language.
These years of traveling will afford me the opportunities to acquire some of the other skills listed below, as well as the chance to meet and talk with others who commit their lives to a range of disciplines. It will also afford me an opportunity to learn about the art, architecture, and literature. In fact, if my prior travels are any indication, I will spend most of these 4 years visiting museums and libraries and exploring the cities, which is why I didn’t bother to include any of the arts in the categories of my plan.
There is a chance that I could get burned out from so much travel. In order to stymie that burn out, I would spread out these years of travel over the course of a decade, and I would make an effort to spend large chunks of time in each place. Instead of spending a few days in San Francisco, for instance, I would spend a week there, or I might spend a month in France. Taking this time will allow me to truly learn about the locations as well as provide me with a sense of normalcy whilst there.
1 Year Learning Dance
One element that Young admits to missing in his decade-plan is physical activity. But, as someone who wants to spend most of this proposed time period learning about cultures, my understanding of those communities would be lacking if I didn’t attempt to learn the ways people move in various parts of the globe. A fun and informative way to do that is through dance lessons! (I also just really like to dance, even if I’m not very good at it.)
I would love to learn hula in Hawai’i, samba in Brazil, and the Viennese Waltz in Austria. Or perhaps I could learn these dances before traveling to these places and be able to participate in cultural events where these dances take place.
Also, I know it’s not the same as dance, but I want to include yoga and martial arts in this category, too, because those are also culturally-influenced ways of moving and controlling the body that I would also love to study.
1 Year Studying Philosophy
I want to know how different people think about the world. I would especially love to learn more about philosophy from people who ascribe to different ones. I want to pick the brain of a nihilist. I want to chat with an idealist.
I especially want to learn more about philosophies that I don’t even know the words for yet. I want to deepen my understanding of philosophy from Asia and Africa. I want to understand the ways that people all over the world process their experiences.
1 Year Studying World Religions
Much like Young’s assessment in his original list, trying to study the philosophies of different regions of the world is not likely to yield much understanding unless paired with studying the popular religions in those regions. I think that a year’s worth of time will give me at least a basic understanding of the most popular world religions.
Again, I would love to fill this year of education with conversations with people who practice different religions. I also think that attending religious ceremonies (whenever I am permitted) would be a really good way to gain an understanding and appreciation for those religions.
6 Months Honing Culinary Skills
Everyone eats and every region has their own variations on cuisine. Taking part in cooking classes or home cooking experiences around the globe will not only make me a better chef, but will provide for a deeper understanding of the areas where I visit. It would help me understand what foods are native to particular regions of the world and the cultural attachments that people have to their food.
And maybe, after this imaginary decade, I could host a dinner party showing off all of the dishes that I learned how to make. Y’all would be invited, of course.
1 Year Learning Programming
I would like to learn more. Even the little bit that I do know has come in handy, both in college when I had to use programs to create graphs, and now that I am blogging (for example, search algorithms can “see” headings so it’s best practice to actually use heading blocks rather than just manually making your text bigger and bolded).
I have a feeling that after some point, learning how to program will start to yield diminishing returns (considering that I don’t need to know it for any of the work I do), but I don’t care. I’d love to get into the HTML of this blog and fiddle around with it until I get a website that looks new and different and mine, even if it doesn’t translate to more views or a better SEO. Or maybe I could create an algorithm that scans through blogs and looks at the common phrases that people use. I just think that it would be fun to do.
6 Months Studying Soft Sciences Like Psychology, Sociology, Anthropology, and Linguistics
I’m just really fascinated by these areas, and I would have taken way more classes in each of them during college if I had had the time. I’m devoting a relatively short time to these areas because I think that having an even slightly better baseline of knowledge in each topic will drastically increase my ability to understand the more niche ideas within them. Generally, I just want to be more literate in these areas so that I can better parse new information that I learn about them.
Where’s the Hard Sciences?
If I really, truly had a decade to devote to education with no limitations, I would want to spend as much of that time learning through hands-on experiences and discussions with other people. Ideally, I would spend almost no time taking classes or reading textbooks, and, unfortunately, the world isn’t well set up to learn hard sciences without these formalized experiences.
This is one area, though, where I know that my answer would have been very different even just 3 years ago. I love science. I want to know more about it. I just no longer think that committing a certain number of months to learning hard sciences or mathematics (outside of their applications in programming) would be worth taking away from the other things that I would want to learn within this decade.
Creating this curriculum forced me to ask myself, “Why don’t I do these things now?”
To be fair to myself, I am learning some of these things now. I take time out every day to practice different languages that I am learning. I try to cook different foods all the time to learn more about the craft. I sometimes try to learn a type of dance using a YouTube video.
That’s where I’m starting from, and now I need to figure out how to go further. I want to start prioritizing travel (once it’s possible again, that is). I want to go out and meet more people with different interests (again, once it’s possible). I want to read more. I want to be more mindful of the media I consume and make sure that it’s truly to unwind, not just to fill time. If it’s just to fill time, I might as well fill that time watching a film in a language that I’m trying to learn with subtitles on or learning how to sew.
If you have any interest in this idea, I think you should go back and read the article that inspired this one and start to create your own decade-long essential education plan. And once you have some ideas, I would love to hear about them!
So, what would you do if you had a decade to devote to education? Would your plan look more like mine or like Young’s?
Update: This post was taken and reposted to another site without my permission. I made this post to explain that whole situation.
I didn’t see images when I closed my eyes. I didn’t see anything.
In the month of August, just weeks before starting tenth grade, I invited two of my friends over to watch a movie. We were assigned the novel Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson as summer homework, and, since we had all finished our readings of it, we decided to gather together to view its filmic depiction.
We sat on the couch, munching on popcorn and muffins, joking about the portrayal of the main character, Melinda Sordino, by the actress Kristen Stewart. By that time, the Twilight franchise movies were starting to be released, and it was amusing to see the parallels between the way Stewart played Melinda and Bella Swan (the Twilight protagonist), despite those characters seeming very different in their book forms. We spent much of the run time of Speak in a giggly mess.
Then we got to one moment in the movie when the art teacher, Mr. Freeman, instructs Melinda to “close [her] eyes” and “picture a tree.” “Any tree,” he says. “There it is. It’s burned into your retinas. You got it. Do it.”
I laughed loud and hard. Obviously, this was an instance of the art teacher being crazy and expecting the impossible from Melinda. My friends were not laughing along with me, so I turned to them. “It’s not like someone can just see a picture of a tree in their head,” I explained.
My friends’ faces changed from confused by my laughter to incredulous at my words. “Yes, you can,” one friend insisted.
“Oh.” I leaned back against the cushion of the couch, no longer able to meet their eyes. I stayed silent for the remainder of the film.
I knew in that moment that something was very different about my way of thinking. I didn’t see images when I closed my eyes. I didn’t see anything.
That’s a nice, neat little story about discovering that my mind works differently than that of most other people, but it’s not the complete story. The truth is, my realization about my lack of visualizations came in fits and starts. I remember writing in a journal in seventh grade that I didn’t have visual memories the way that other people seemed to. Even before then, there were moments of people describing their thoughts that just never made sense to me.
The reason why this movie viewing party stands out so clearly in my head is that it was the final straw. I had some idea that other people were able to “see” their memories, but this was the first time that I fully recognized that people were able to conjure images in their minds whenever they wanted to. No wonder I was so bad at visual art. No wonder other people equated reading a book to watching a movie. No wonder I was just dying to get to the character development and advancements in the plot in the Harry Potter book series while other readers adored the vivid descriptions of the scenery.
Something was clearly wrong with me.
At the time, I didn’t have the words to articulate what was so different about my thought process. In fact, at the time of this event, 2010 (writing that makes me feel so old), the term for this phenomenon had not yet been coined.
For a few years afterward, whenever I tried to tell other people what I was experiencing, I tended to do so incorrectly. At one point, I told my mom that I’m face blind because that was the closest psychological term I could find. But I’m not face blind. In fact, I am rather good at recognizing faces. I just can’t pull up a picture of a face in my head.
By my sophomore year in college, I had gotten better at describing this experience, and the friends I told started to believe me. My then-boyfriend tested me with visualization exercises from his math classes, resulting in one particularly memorable incident of trying to help me visualize a tesseract, the four-dimensional version of a cube.
“Picture a point,” he said calmly and patiently.
It took all of my concentration and several minutes to do this, but eventually, I was able to.
“Now picture four points on a plane with line segments of equal length connecting them so that they form a square.”
Another bout of concentration, another several minutes, but I was also able to complete this feat.
“Now, we’re going to look at three-dimension space. Imagine another square of equal size above the first one with line segments of equal length connecting the corresponding vertices to form a cube.”
I tried and tried, but the original square was already so difficult to hold in my brain, and I wasn’t even sure if I had done that part right, considering that I had never successfully managed to visualize anything before, so I gave up.
“That’s not even the hard part!” his roommate insisted, the frustration clear in his voice.
But it was the hard part for me. In fact, trying to hold a single point in my non-existent visual consciousness was hard. I spent the rest of the day nursing a headache and feeling completely exhausted.
The scientific term for a lack of visualization ability from birth is “congenital aphantasia” or just “aphantasia” for short. According to its Wikipedia entry, aphantasia means “a condition where one does not possess a functioning mind’s eye and cannot voluntarily visualize imagery.” Though the condition was first described in 1880 by Francis Galton, the study of it kicked off within the last decade, led by Professor Adam Zeman from the University of Exeter. Zeman was originally studying a subject who had lost his ability to visualize following a surgery. After the publication of his paper, life-long aphantasics began to reach out to him to say, “Hey, wait, I have never been able to do that.” Zeman created the word “aphantasia” to describe these experiences and has been on the forefront of research into the matter ever since.
I don’t remember when I first heard the term “aphantasia” to describe this lack of visual thoughts. During my fact finding for this post, I saw that the term wasn’t even coined until 2015, so if I had seen the word during my sophomore year of college, it would have been super freshly minted. (Get it, ’cause the word was “coined” that year? Never mind.) I know that this Facebook article written by software engineer and sometimes writer Blake Ross had a huge impact on my understanding of my own thoughts, but this wasn’t published until well into my junior year of college. Since I heard the term and found this post, though, I’ve never looked back. Finally, I had a word for what I experience every day. Finally, other people were beginning to write about their own experiences.
I used to feel bad about how long it took me to realize that my way of thinking falls so far outside the norm. I don’t feel that way any longer as more and more people, many of whom are much older than me, are beginning to discover that they possess this same weird brain-thing. Until recently, it wasn’t really talked about, and now that it is being shared, people are coming to realize that this term fits them, too.
Another reason why this lack of visuals is so difficult to recognize in oneself is because saying “picture _____” sounds metaphorical. You are not literally changing your surroundings. It’s all in your head. I just extended that metaphorical meaning further.
“Picture a tree”–metaphor. They must mean think about all the elements of a tree to help you draw it.
“Visualize yourself achieving your goal”–metaphor. They must mean make a list of what actions you must take to succeed and what emotions you might feel when you do.
“Count sheep”–metaphor. They must mean count until you fall asleep while you ruminate on the concept of sheep. Which is a weird thing to do. Like, really weird.
One might say that I don’t truly have aphantasia because I was able to conjure a square in my mind albeit by dint of much blood, sweat, and tears. I also know for a fact that I dream with visuals because I have memories of what those dreams looked like the same way that I have memories of what I look like or what my friends look like–it’s all descriptions of visual elements stored as words. Not all aphantasics possess the ability to do these things. The research on the topic of aphantasia shows that visualization abilities exist on a spectrum. Some people have vivid, realistic mental images. Others have more cartoon-esque, more faded, or more blurry pictures in their heads. Despite my prior examples, as a general rule, I have such a limited ability to see any visuals whatsoever that it would be laughable for me to pretend otherwise. If it takes me minutes to picture a dot and I come away from that experience with a headache, I cannot be expected to picture a face. When it comes to pulling up a mental map, even one of a familiar place, forget about it. These are the times when having a visual consciousness would be helpful. In the big picture, sometimes being able to visualize a single point is about as useless as never being able to visualize a single point.
I don’t know how I feel about this lack of mental images because I don’t know what it would be like to exist in the world otherwise. I don’t think that I’ve ever had the ability to visualize, so I’ve never associated it with a feeling of loss. Some things would certainly be more convenient if I had pictures of things in my head, like wayfinding on semi-familiar streets or manipulating shapes in higher levels of mathematics, but I have workarounds and solutions to the problems that arise from this lack of visuals.
In fact, I credit aphantasia requiring me to find different ways to do things for part of my problem solving ability. It certainly provided me with lots of practice with thinking outside of the box. (Were you just picturing a box as you read those words? Do you picture a box whenever you hear that phrase? I don’t even know what that would be like.)
And, no, if you were wondering, having aphantasia does not seem to have a detrimental effect on my memory. I’ve read articles written by people with aphantasia who have terrible memories, and I’ve read articles written by people with aphantasia who have great memories. I’m lucky to fall into the latter category.
So that’s been part of my experience with aphantasia! If you have any questions for me about this, I would love to answer them. If I get enough, I will do a separate post with all the Q’s and all my A’s.
And if you want to learn more about aphantasia or read about the way other people experience it, here are some resources:
She clicked “Publish,” and her whole world changed.
How’s that for an under-10-word short story?
In all seriousness, I just want to say that if you are reading this, thank you.
I’ve posted some writings to other platforms in the past, and WordPress has by far the most welcoming, encouraging, and lovely communities I’ve seen.
The poetry community on here is especially wonderful. My original intentions for this blog did not include poetry whatsoever. In fact, when I first started The Yellow Brick Ave, it had been years since I had written a single poem. My transition to a majority-poetry blog happened entirely by accident. One day, early on in the life of this blog, I was struck by some inspiration and I decided to write it down in verse. I posted it without any expectations. That poem, “You Are”, received such a swift and supportive reaction that I decided to write another poem. Then another. Then another. Now, poetry makes up 2/3 of my posts on here, and I plan to keep it that way. And though my technical poetic writing skills definitely need some practice, putting that work in has so far been so fulfilling. Thank you for sticking by me as I experiment and change and (hopefully) improve.
I feel so incredibly lucky to have stumbled into this type of writing and this community so early on. From what I understand, finding your blogging niche is one of the most difficult and time-consuming parts of getting started. I don’t know for certain if I will continue down this particular path for the entire life of this blog, but it was very humbling to discover within my second week a little corner of the internet where I felt like I belonged.
Now that all that gushy stuff is out of the way, I want to talk about my intentions for the future of this blog. I’m going to keep all of this kind of vague because, though I do have ideas that I want to execute, I don’t have timelines for any of those ideas, and I don’t want to make promises that I can’t keep.
First of all, I have been keeping a schedule for the past two months where I put up two poems and a longer-form blog post every week. I like that schedule a lot because, as it says on the picture on my homepage, it is “consistently inconsistent.” However, though I do intend to continue having multiple types of writing on here, that weekly blog post (to which I have been referring in my head as my “Free Friday” post) has been kind of all over the place. I think I want to continue using “Free Friday” to write about a variety of different topics (keeping the “free” in “Free Friday” so to speak), but I want to iron out the tone, so it doesn’t change so wildly from week to week. This improvement will happen when it happens (I think it’s another thing that I just need to stumble into), but any feedback that you have would be very helpful to maybe help me stumble quicker. Is stumbling quicker a thing? Maybe I should make it a thing.
Lastly, as I said in another early poem of mine, “Light,” “I hope that one day/I can find a way/to reflect the light.” I adore blogs that use their platform to lift up other creators, and I would like to do that myself. I plan to do this slowly and in stages, but if you have any advice/suggestions, I gladly welcome them in the comments. For now, I’m just going to leave some links to blogs that I already follow that come to mind when I think about writers using their platforms to support other writers. (Note: This is not a comprehensive list.)
It’s a question that I often ask my students, trying to ascertain what interests them and which accomplishments give them the most pride. This is useful to 1.) get to know the students better in order to establish a relationship and find ways to make the curriculum more relevant to them and 2.) have an arsenal of ideas for each of them when they inevitably say, “I don’t know what to write.”
After all, the cliché “write what you know” gets touted to would-be authors both young and old. And though the phrase is both overused and sometimes misused, its basic premise has sound logic. You do need a baseline of knowledge about what you are writing in order to fill your work with truth and emotion (not to mention to make it make sense).
Children seem to find this “what are you an expert in?” question surprisingly easy–they’re an expert in multiplication or basketball or taking care of their younger siblings or reading a book. They can rattle off a litany of skills that they have acquired over their few years, and, in my experience, their self-described expertises are usually true.
It might seem silly to label a six-year-old as an expert at reading a book, since they will inevitably learn so much more about reading as they grow older and read more, but I don’t use the word “expert” to inflate the student’s ego or imply that they have mastered a certain area. Rather, I use the term to make them think deeply about their strengths and to acknowledge their background or cultural knowledge about a particular topic. (That was education jargon that means that every student enters a learning situation with a variety of family and life experiences that inform what they already know.)
And then when that “I don’t know what to write” phrase is uttered, I whip out my list of strengths that the student came up with themself and tell them to choose one. These expert areas can inform not only how-tos (tell me how to play basketball), but also narratives (write a story about basketball), and essays (detail the pros and cons of a particular rule in basketball or choose a famous basketball player to write about).
In which areas do you possess an expertise?
I was introspecting on this question lately, and I had a realization: I don’t know how I would answer it.
I mean, I have some simple, obvious answers. I’m an expert in comedy T.V. shows (but not The Office, which, I know, shame on me). I’m an expert in writing for this blog. I’m an expert in being myself. (Just know that as I was writing that last sentence, I had a big, cheesy smile on my face.)
As an adult, coming up with an “expertise list” is not that easy. Perhaps it’s because of my own hangups or perhaps it’s because of the frustrating “valley of despair” part of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but I can almost always find a reason why I’m not an expert in any given area. I have definitely put in my 10,000 hours for writing, but I can think of countless other writers (many of whom are WordPress bloggers!) who are leagues and leagues better than me. I know a lot about linguistics, but I didn’t study it in college. I did study education in college, but I don’t have a PhD in it, nor do I have decades of teaching experience.
The truth is, I’m a bit of a dabbler. I listen to podcasts about economics, I read news stories about politics, and I watch videos about filmmaking. I don’t have a singular passion; in fact, I would consider striving to know a little about a lot to be my primary passion. I’m very fickle with my interests and I love a lot of different topics. That’s also the main reason why I’m so drawn to teaching: because I, myself, adore learning and I want other people to like learning, too.
I would say that phrase “jack of all trades, master of none” applies wells to me.
This lack of a singular focus can be pretty aggravating sometimes. The whole reason why this question popped into my head is because a few days ago when I was thinking about what I should do for this blog post, I couldn’t think of anything of substance to say. Much like various students that I’ve had over the years, I didn’t know what to write. How can I “write what I know” when I don’t know anything as in-depth as I want to?
At the very least, I guess I can rest easy in acknowledging that I am enough of an expert in not knowing things to crank out a whole blog post about it.
So those were my whining, self-deprecating thoughts. But I would never talk to someone else the way that I just wrote about myself, so I’m going to flip the script now and engage in some positive self-talk.
In the first part of this post, I mentioned that my use of the word “expert” with my students is not meant to say that they know everything there is to know about an area; it’s meant to make them think about the knowledge they already possess and how that allows them to talk about that topic with logic, truth, and emotion. While I don’t necessarily think that as an adult I should claim to be an expert in just any area where I possess knowledge, I shouldn’t allow myself to be scared away from a topic simply because I don’t have a PhD. in it. In fact, I should allow that desire to know more about more to help me in my discussions of topics.
Thus, I don’t need to narrow my focuses to be a be a better blogger or person. I only need to utilize the diverse knowledge that I have gained through dabbling to inform my future writings. I will try to keep that in my the next time I say to myself, “I don’t know what to write.”
What Am I an Expert In?
Here’s a more extensive list of some of the very specific (and silly) areas where I would proclaim an expertise:
remembering things for other people
plant-based home cooking (just ask me about egg substitutes)
making to do lists (but not so much at executing them)
making toast without a toaster (I have two different methods!)
making a bat out of construction paper, tissue, paper clips and decoupage
recognizing the formula of stand up comedy
connecting education principles to the world of national intelligence (I took a course in national intelligence in which most [if not all] of the other students were majoring in something relating to the political sphere, and the professor assigned us an essay about how intelligence was related to our future careers. I don’t want to brag, but I did get an A on that writing and on the course.)
using a dictionary
sorting color tiles based on tints, shades, tones, etc.
hula-hooping (but only around my waist)
After that somewhat self-aggrandizing list, I want to know what do you think you are an expert in? Leave me a list in a comment. I’d love to read it!
Unlike most of my other blog posts, I relied on my previous knowledge to write this one, but I feel like I should include some resources (some of which are also linked in the post) in case you want to learn more, so here they are:
I wanted to know why, though. What evidence exists to explain why trying new things is good for me?
The Science of Trying New Things
One major benefit of trying new things hinges on the keyword of “neuroplasticity.”
The word “neuroplasticity” combines the root “neuro” meaning relating to the nervous system (in this case, the brain) and the word “plasticity”, which in this case means “capacity for being molded or altered” according the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
You may have heard that your brain changes when you learn new information. That is exactly the phenomenon that neuroplasticity is describing. When we provide our minds with new information, we create or strengthen pathways in our brain. If we then reinforce that new information with similar experiences, we strengthen those pathways even more (Wingeier, 2018). This can improve your ability to complete a task successfully or can increase the automaticity for that task (like how you don’t have to think too hard while you’re driving once you’ve been doing it for a few years) (Stevens, 2019).
When I was having new experiences, I was learning new things and making connections to other things that I had done before. Therefore, I was creating and reinforcing neuropathways, which is awesome!
This challenge was not optimized to encourage the most neuroplasticity (but with some adaptations, I’m sure it could be!). Any neuropathways that I built while learning German, for example, likely will not get used with any regularity and may even disappear. For learning’s sake, I would have been better off practicing French or Spanish, two languages that I encounter more frequently and for which I have a better baseline of knowledge. But I wanted to try learning German, guys! I wanted the experience!
This leads to the second benefit of trying new things: we most often remember experiences pleasantly, and having pleasant experiences is a good thing (“Health and Happiness”, 2007). In fact, studies find over and over again that, absent depression, about half of our past experiences are viewed pleasantly while only about a quarter are viewed unpleasantly (Walker, Skowronski, & Thompson, 2003).
Trying new things means gaining new experiences–new experiences that will likely be pleasant ones. And, in the case of a challenge like this one, the person doing it can be somewhat in control of the pleasantness of those experiences by choosing activities that will likely be enjoyed. Further, having more pleasant memories makes us happier (Fredrickson, 2004).
So, that’s the science. Now, let’s get on to the anecdotes.
Some Silly Lessons I Learned Along the Way
Day 1: Chocolate pancakes tend to be kinda bitter because, duh, cocoa powder is bitter. Make sure you add enough sweet to counteract that. (I cut out the applesauce from the recipe that I was loosely basing my creation on, and that turned out to be a major mistake.)
Days 2, 3, 7, 9, 11, 12, and 13: Listen to recommendations about movies, music, etc. from random people on the internet. Those suggestions are often good.
Day 10: Do not listen to every suggestion you get from random people on the internet! Sometimes those suggestions are terrible!
Days 4 and 16: Learning a new language is hard, but not that hard. What really seems to matter is dedication. I was not dedicated to either of the languages I tried during this challenge. (But I am dedicated to French, and I’m semi-dedicated to Spanish, and I’ve seen such growth in my ability to speak, read, and understand those.)
Day 5: Frankenstein is a good book so far.
Day 6: I love writing poetry. Outside of one month-long stint of doing it half a decade ago, I hadn’t really tried writing poems until just over a month ago. It’s really fun!
Day 8: I’m not good at winged eyeliner yet, but I’m getting there.
Days 14 and 21: It seems like a really quick and simple thing to start using a new app, but sometimes, it isn’t. But just because they aren’t easy to learn doesn’t mean that they are bad.
Days 15, 17, 18, 20, 25, and 28: Exploring your town and its various streets, parks, restaurants, etc. is really fun! I hope to invest more time into doing that in the future.
Days 19 and 23: Talking and reading about kindness and compassion isn’t enough–but it is something. I just need to remind myself to go and do kind things in addition to thinking about them.
Day 22: Making a good chicken and waffle sandwich isn’t as easy as it seems!
Day 26: Tetrachromacy in humans is real…but the online tests for it aren’t.
Day 27: Some days you can do a lot, and some days you can’t. It is necessary to forgive yourself when you have an off day.
Day 29: I don’t like working from home as much as working in person. Which seems like a weird thing to say writing a post for this blog–a blog that has exclusively been written from the comfort of my apartment. Still, it lets me know that however my work changes in the future, I need to make an effort to go out and interact with other people (once the pandemic is over, that is).
Days 24 and 30: It’s okay to try things, even if they serve no real purpose and even if you plan to get rid of the creations you make. You might not know how much you like doing something until you try it!
I can tell you that I enjoyed vast majority of the experiences from this challenge while they were happening, and even the ones that I didn’t like in the moment, I look back on fondly. And I don’t think that I’m an anomaly here; I think that between the fact that I tried things that I thought I might like and the tendency to view experiences pleasantly anyway, a positive outcome to the challenge was almost guaranteed.
But I didn’t just appreciate this challenge intellectually; I actually liked doing it. I liked waking up every morning and thinking “What new thing am I going to try today?” I liked exploring. I liked learning new things about the world and about myself.
While I don’t plan to continue this challenge in its fullness, I do want to keep trying new things when opportunities present themselves.
In this tumultuous time, I am sure that we are all doing new things or doing old things in a new way. Let me know something that you’ve learned recently while trying something new.