I didn’t break my engagement and move across the country to San Francisco to recreate my Southern and then Midwestern upbringing. I moved to San Francisco to recreate myself. So when one of my new roommates of our lower Haight railroad walk-up told me she was ordering Thai for dinner and asked if I wanted anything I figured this was the time to say yes – to say yes to a new experience. If the suburb of Cincinnati I had come from had a Thai restaurant, I didn’t know about it; and I had no idea what to order. Pad Thai was a good introduction, my roommate advised. ‘I’m really doing it now,’ I remember thinking, ‘This is the first step among many in expanding my world.’ It was just dinner, but it felt monumental.
I recently listened to a Joshua Foer speech from the 99U conference. Foer, a science writer, recounts his experience improving his memory through mnemonic devices. He tells the audience there are three stages to learning a new skill: the cognitive phase, where we actively think about what we’re learning; the associative phase, where we are still making mistakes but less of them; and the autonomous phase, where we reach auto-pilot. Psychologists used to believe that once we reached auto-pilot we weren’t capable of improvement, but now we know that to improve we must actively work to keep ourselves in the cognitive phase. To stay in the cognitive phase we must operate outside our comfort zones and practice the things we struggle with the most. We must also seek feedback and treat our efforts to improve like a science, actively monitoring our progress.
Certainly I accomplished no intellectual feat ordering Pad Thai. I did not improve my memory or my ability to calculate math problems in my head. Though I was operating outside my comfort zone, and I was watching myself practice being someone other than who I’d always been. Fulfillment, like any skill, takes practice and a willingness to try new things, some of which we will inevitable fail.
To figure out fulfillment, be more adventurous – no one ever found fulfillment on auto-pilot.