I first realized that I had truly switched careers from lawyer to career counselor when my boss pushed me out of an airplane . . . and it made me feel like a big baby.
More than a dozen years ago, I made up my mind to try skydiving. For years I had imagined it might be fun, and truth to tell I should have acted on that inkling back then, because by the time I committed myself to jumping, I had a baby son and a wife who was convinced and terrified that I would end up a pulpy corpse. But it wasn’t the kind of thing I would have undertaken on my own, and it wasn’t until I was a young associate at a top-notch law firm that I fell in with a group driven and cocky enough to make the leap together.
The three of us signed up for an Accelerated FreeFall (AFF) class. This does not mean they fire you out of the plane like a human cannonball; it means that in one day, you get all the instruction you need to be allowed to jump solo (flanked by, but unconnected to, two instructors) on your first try. The reason I could insist on going forward with the mission, in the face of my wife’s protests and distress, was that I had researched the workings of and statistics behind AFF, and I was convinced that it was actually quite safe. (Which was true; the trip up in the plane was more risky than the drop back down.)
In fact, that rational placidity remained with me through the day-long training, the slow climb to 14,000 feet, and the movement out the open door of the airplane to stand in jump position on a slim metal ledge. I was excited but no more nervous than I had been standing in line to see The Return of the Jedi years before. But as my instructors and I prepared to jump, my gaze wandered idly to the toes of my sneakers, hanging several inches off the metal ledge . . . and unexpectedly my perspective shifted. I suddenly became aware that the forest visible between my shoes was three miles away, a distance it would take me an hour to walk, and I was about to relinquish the only thing solid between that place and me.
For a round moment, I felt a cold nugget of pure fear wrapped in a gooey coating of incredulity. I couldn’t do this — it was crazy to think I could — I could not believe I had thought I would succeed. Then, the instructors gave the signal, I went back into rational mode, and we leapt. That was when I learned what I had forgotten — why infants, like my then-baby boy Isaac, laugh so wholeheartedly. Isaac would burst into a joyful giggle after a barefoot run through grass or the sight of an exotic animal on TV. I had thought it was because he — all kids — are naturally joyous, but that’s really the effect, not the cause. What makes them laugh is the novelty, the pleasure of seeing something for the first time. They have experienced so little in their short lives that every day they feel something new, and, as long as it’s not harrowing or harmful, that newness stimulates delight. By the time we are adults — once we have experienced the carnal pleasures of maturity — we run out of newness. Things still feel good and provide pleasure, but there is not much left with the freshness to spark that giggling rapture.
Until you jump out of an airplane. Freefall — when do we experience that in our lives? A fraction of a second between the diving board and the pool? Even if you can picture that, you still cannot imagine the exponential intensity of freefalling for thirty or forty seconds. For me, for the first time in so long I had forgotten it, I was feeling something entirely new. It was amazing. All I could do while falling, and for many minutes after landing safely, was laugh and chortle and roar and gasp. Babies are so lucky.
Fast forward now to last year, a few months after starting my counseling job. At the start I was doing all kinds of things I had always enjoyed — editing others’ writing, teaching classes, providing one-on-one advice — and so I was happy. Then one day, during a meeting of our counseling group and in a moment of brainstorming, I offhandedly tossed out an idea for a presentation we could make to our students.
“Sounds great!” said my boss. “When do you want to do it and what should we call it?”
“Uh.” My mouth flapped open like a broken mailbox. I had been a tax lawyer, for Pete’s sake! We made decisions slowly, deliberately, gathering facts and sorting the law until we were sure of the prudent course. And you want me to select a date and a name right now? I couldn’t do this — it was crazy to think I could — I could not believe I had thought I would succeed. I could see the trees beneath my toes, three miles down.
But everyone else in the office seemed to be unruffled. So I shrugged, and I jumped.
It was not the same as freefall, of course. It was just a presentation, after all. But it was something new . . . a little new, at least . . . and sometime later, when the date had been set and the name selected and the script and materials prepared . . . I smiled like a toddler just to know I had done it.
And maybe that is why novelty generates joy — to motivate us to keep trying new things.