Outside My Comfort Zone

I’ve been wearing my MIT class ring again lately, as a reminder to myself that I Can Do This. And by “this,” I mean…everything. Everything has just been a lot lately, including a lot of new things and new challenges that I have taken on. So a little reminder that I have met some pretty big challenges before has been welcome.

And to be honest, I need that reminder in part because I have a tendency to underplay my past accomplishments, especially if they don’t have a direct and obvious impact on my present circumstances. Yes, I have a physics degree from MIT, but I’m not really using it right now, so it’s almost like I forget about it. And it’s not even completely true that I’m not using it; no, I’m not working in the field of physics, but I use that education every day. I use it when I employ critical thinking, and when I confidently dive into a new learning experience. That degree taught me how to think, and (being me) when am I ever not thinking?

Similarly, I have a black belt, but it’s from a school that doesn’t exist anymore, and I’m not actively training right now, so I almost forget about that, too. I think of myself as someone who has been a martial artist, not someone who is one right now. But the fact is, my experiences in the martial arts have shaped huge parts of who I am and how I move through the world, and I do still use the lessons from it that go beyond the physical training aspect. It is part of me.*

So this post is to tell myself that I can remember these things when it seems like a big deal just to leave the house and deal with people, or to make a phone call, or when I am waiting on pins and needles for a reply to an email that might not have been received well. I can take on new challenges with the knowledge that I have met challenges before — and when I have days where everything is too much of a challenge, I can take a day off without feeling guilty.

And lastly, when someone sanctimoniously suggests that I “just need to step outside my comfort zone” on one of those days where things are just too much, I can reply, “Whelp, I live outside my comfort zone. Why don’t you try that for a while and tell me how it feels?”

* Also, I am about to try out a new karate school just opening in my town! I am very excited, because it’s a style I have enjoyed in the past, and the instructor is happy to let me just learn without worrying about rank, since I have that black belt from a related style and have trained in his before. I am really hoping it works out, because I would love to be training again in a way that makes me happy.

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Returning, Restarting, Reframing

I am thinking about getting back into martial arts. I am also thinking about going back to school. These two things are strongly related in my mind.

I have a black belt in a martial art that doesn’t really exist anymore; it was a single-school system, and the instructor isn’t teaching it anymore, and neither are any of the other black belts who had been teaching there (including me). Part of what this means is that I can’t maintain the same rank when I start at another school. The skill I built up while earning that black belt is still real (if a bit rusty right now), but the “credential” doesn’t really apply anywhere else.

Now, that’s totally fine with me. I’ve been a white belt (beginner) again twice since earning that black belt — and before that point, I had been a white belt several times over as I switched styles. I always let new instructors know about my previous experience — it’s usually something they ask of new students — but I make it clear that I’m not expecting to start anywhere but at the beginning. Knowing about my previous experience is helpful to them, because it explains why I often pick up techniques very quickly (if they’re similar to what I’ve done before), but also explains why there might be small details that will take some time to retrain (if a technique in the new style is close-but-not-quite-identical to a technique in the older style).

I had one teacher who was really weird about it, though. He actually offered to let me retain my black belt, but it made no sense to me since I didn’t know his curriculum. The rank would not have been an accurate representation of my skill in that style. So he let me learn at a bit of an accelerated pace instead — but constantly pointed out to the other students around my current rank that I was “really” a black belt, and that’s why I was learning faster. It made things awkward, and I think it gave the impression that I was somehow bragging, even though I was never the one to bring it up.

So I’m looking at starting a new style yet again, at a small school not far from my house. The instructor has a good reputation, and the style — though not one I’ve been particularly drawn to in the past — shares a lot of elements with past arts I’ve studied. (And I’ve definitely found that specific style matters much less than having a good instructor.) But I don’t know how this past-experience thing is going to play out this time, so it makes me a little nervous.

The going-back-to-school impulse carries some similar issues, as it happens. I have a bachelor’s degree already, so I think most people would be looking at graduate school programs as the next step. But I don’t think that’s the right step for me, and it’s similar to how I didn’t feel right coming into a new martial art and wearing the black belt from my old one. That’s because I want to start studying a completely different field, and to me it seems like studying something at a master’s level kind of implies that you’ve trained up to that level in that field (or a related one).

I know many people do change fields between their undergraduate and graduate work, so it’s not impossible. But when I look at master’s degree programs in the field I’m interested in (I’m going to be vague for now and write about it in more detail later), it looks like there’s a lot of ground work that I haven’t done. I could do that coursework first, I suppose, but to me it makes more sense to start at the beginning.

There’s also the question of the cost of education, and for me that includes the logistical costs of getting to classes while also continuing to work — so the availability of programs within a close driving radius was a big factor. And frankly, I’m really not sure whether this area of study is going to give me what I need for the plans I have, so starting small seems to make more sense, too.

So what I have come up with is the idea of working toward an associate’s degree at my local community college, as a way of getting my feet wet. That way I’ll get a lot of preliminary exposure to this new field, and afterwards I’ll have a basis for transferring into a bachelor’s degree (or combo bachelor’s/master’s degree) program. It’s close, it’s affordable, and the program I’m looking at has a lot of cool classes.

But I’m curious as to how the previous-experience question will play out there, as well. And not just at the school, but among my family and friends. Most people seem to think of education as a ladder of sorts, with the only valid path being further “up.” They would see my plan as a major step backward — but I look at it as a natural process of starting over as a white belt again. I still acknowledge the strengths that my past training has given me (and I will take advantage of course credits that can be transferred), but I am fine with being a beginner again in a new field.

I’ll be writing more about both of these (potential) new starts in the future. But I thought it was interesting how clearly related they seem to me, and I wonder how my growing new understanding of myself as autistic will affect how I proceed.