Tania Aebi’s memoir Maiden Voyage changed my life.
Of course, I didn’t know it at the time: I was a teenager when I read it. But now as I look back, I can see the ways in which that story influenced me and helped define the kind of person I wanted to become.
Maiden Voyage documents Aebi’s journey sailing around the world by herself at age 18. She had very little experience when she set out, but she needed to prove to her father – and probably herself – that she could succeed at something.
Not many fathers would send their daughters to sea alone. Under fire of criticism, her father famously said it was safer for Aebi to be on a sailboat than hanging around bars at 4 a.m.
I remember feeling inspired by Aebi’s level-headedness and bravery. It seemed like she could figure anything out and persevere in the face of any crisis. She suffered, but she also basked in the ocean’s serenity and beauty, and she met amazing people along the way.
I vowed to live like that, too: To seek new adventures and jump into challenges even when I didn’t know what might lie ahead. I decided to be the person who could embrace opportunity and even gamble with high stakes. And, at my core, I chose to believe that I could figure anything out when I set my mind to it.
I haven’t thought about Maiden Voyage in years. But it came back to me as I was reflecting on the “growth mindset,” or the ability to see everything in life as an opportunity to learn. I got curious about the origins and influences of how this mindset might have developed in my life.
Where, and how, did I learn it?
I’m still thinking that through. I’m guessing the insight will come in flashes, the way I remembered reading Maiden Voyage. And, there’s some sadness with this exploration, too. I’m reconciling with all of the opportunities I’ve missed – the ways I’ve limited my life – because I didn’t cultivate a growth mindset. Maybe that will be the topic of a future post.
But there is always more opportunity. I’ve seen it firsthand.
One of my greatest observations of the growth mindset in action came from my work as executive director of an arts organization that teaches studio art classes – drawing, painting, collage, etc., to beginners of all ages. The youngest students were 8 years old; the oldest were in their 90s.
Lots of people hold a fixed mindset around creativity, or believe that they either are, or are not, creative. Our cultural narrative is that one is born an artist — as if the ability to draw is in our DNA.
Then, teachers and parents pass this idea down to kids, who are impressionable and take every throw-away comment to heart. Children interpret adults’ words as definitional, and then shape their personalities and life experiences to confirm it.
“I can’t even draw a stick figure!” is a sentence I heard all the time when I would invite people to take a class at the studio.
But I also saw the opposite.
During the work week, retired professionals would take classes. These were highly successful doctors, lawyers, CEOs, and real estate brokers – the kind of people who are used to embracing challenge. Now, bored with golf, yoga, and walking the dog, they decided to learn to draw.
This meant trying something entirely new. It meant confronting the stories they might have told themselves for decades about their artistic ability, too.
And here, in the studio, they were stripped of their usual environments and authority. There were no titles, just first names. There wasn’t any data. No spreadsheets. No fancy offices. No assistants to help with the details. Only tables and chairs, the smell of paint and sharpened pencils, and blank sheets of paper.
One of our beginning students was a retired heart surgeon. This was an individual who lived with the reality that mistakes cost lives.
Well, now he was asked to sketch an egg, an assignment that teaches shape, contour, shading, and other beginning drawing skills. He found it very tough. Drawing a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional surface is quite different than operating on a body, even though both skills require intense focus on what you see and working with your hands.
Struggling to render an egg to his satisfaction almost did him in but he persevered. How? He made the choice between feeling ashamed that he wasn’t good at this, or allowing himself the time and space to be a beginner again.
Those who could stomach the experience of starting from scratch could make incredible progress! They truly developed their craft, and over the years, some went on to build careers as working artists.
Even more important than commercial success, I’ll tell you this: The students with a growth mindset were ageless.
In the art studio, age simply didn’t register because everyone was growing and evolving regardless of how old they were. In fact, some of the older students seemed younger than people I know in their 30s.
Let that sink in as you consider what you want, and the ever-present objection, “But I’m too old!” or “It’s too late for me.”
A fixed mindset says: Artists are born. A growth mindset says: Artists are made. And this isn’t true only for artists – it’s universal. Anything you want requires patience, time, and application.
You will have limits because we all do. Most of us will never win a marathon, or invent a new technology, or become a multi-millionaire, or model on the cover of Vogue. And I have no desire to sail around the world by myself – at least not yet.
But some people will defy what’s “expected” of them, and not only will they live a life of purpose and authenticity, but they’ll achieve greatness. Maybe that person is you.
If you know what you want, if something inside of you says, “I think I can do this,” then it’s up to you to honor that intuition. Learn to manage the uncomfortable feelings of beginning again. Chose to embrace a growth mindset. Show up and do the work.
You just might surprise yourself.
I’m Stephanie. I’m a writer, coach, and facilitator. I work with individuals, teams and leaders in creative, entrepreneurial, and nonprofit fields to improve communication, find a true purpose, and deepen connection and meaning. If you enjoyed this post, share it with a friend! And I’d love it if you would subscribe to my email list, below.