It’s freezing cold on New Year’s Day morning and I’m standing on the beach in Atlantic City wearing nothing but a bathing suit. At age 53 , I feel completely exposed and embarrassed. All I want to do is pull my clothes on and run. I seriously consider it but I look around and know there’s no turning back. I’m surrounded.
First, there’s a group of about thirty people in swimsuits, mostly guys, some in speedos, telling me the best way to take the plunge into the ocean. Secondly, my 22 year old daughter is fully expecting me to follow through on this and she’s taking pictures. Third, there’s a news crew from the station that I work at and a fellow reporter here to document my first act of insanity of the year. Or perhaps it’s the most sane thing I’ve done in many years.
Two weeks earlier I was whining. I was whining about my life and my work. I just felt stuck. Part of me felt ashamed for complaining. I tried to remind myself I should be thankful just to be alive. My medical history is too long to fit in those forms you fill out at the doctor’s office, but here’s the short version. I was 33 when my entire large intestine was removed because of ulcerative colitis. The intestinal bowel disease runs in my family. Fortunately doctors were able to put me back together with an experimental surgery at the time. I returned to my life and my work but at age 35 I was smacked down again with an aggressive breast cancer. But hey, nineteen years after chemo and a mastectomy you wouldn’t know it. I look like the picture of health.
There’ve been other medical issues: a kidney cancer, ovarian tumors, other small bits and pieces removed over the years. Let’s just say I don’t have many spare parts left. I don’t tell you this so you can feel sorry for me, only so you can understand why I’m thinking I have no right in the world to be whining about anything. Nevertheless, I’m whining about everything.
Now, it could be when you survive all that, you expect a lot more. I suppose anyone who faces potential demise at a fairly early age reacts differently. All I know is that in January 2010 I wasn’t happy. I felt stuck. I’d been a tv news reporter for over 30 years. Despite all my crazy health issues I was able to raise a beautiful daughter, have the love and support of my husband of 28 years, traveled much of the world for work and pleasure, landed a National Emmy for investigative reporting and was living a healthy life. Again, you might ask, “what the heck are you complaining about?”
Perhaps the issue was I’d been content and happy for a good decade. I loved my job, my life. Then the business of tv news changed dramatically, almost overnight. There were cutbacks, layoffs, job convergences. My job was safe but the investigative unit I worked in had resources taken away. There would be no more travel, no more full time photographer, no full time researcher. It wasn’t what my managers wanted to do, it was just what had to be done. Every department took hits. I came home angry every night and didn’t like hearing “We’re going to have to do things differently”.
Meanwhile, technology was changing all around me and I really didn’t care to learn it. I didn’t facebook. I didn’t tweet. I didn’t blog. I didn’t want to. If I didn’t know how to do something online I had a college intern do it for me. I also sternly scolded my interns for texting me. “Why can’t you pick up the phone?” I asked them. They just looked at me with that twentysomething smirk I’d seen on my daughter’s face that clearly read “What’s wrong with HER???”
In December, my daughter came home to Philadelphia from Los Angeles where she’d graduated college and was now working. She looked at me one day and said “You really have to start a blog”.
“A blog? Blog, shmog. What am I going to do with a blog?”
“Mom, you need some outlet to write, to be creative and it would be good for you to learn how to do this.”
Something akin to “Bah humbug” came out of me.
I slept on it. I thought about it. I was on vacation and had time to mull things over. I knew on some level my wise daughter was right. I had to do something.
Now at this point I had actually already taken my first step in my journey of change but didn’t recognize it. I’d recently started grad school online to work on getting my Masters in Media Management. Mostly, it just seemed like a lot of extra work I had to squeeze into my schedule. I was thinking I might want to teach in the future and needed the degree.
I imagined getting my Masters in Journalism after decades in the business would be easy, right? Credit for work experience? No way. Instead I struggled taking the GRE just to get into school. I had no idea how to get the area of a right triangle or anything else. I barely got through 8th grade algebra when I was in 8th grade. I actually had to hire a tutor to get me through the math section of the test. In January, with two semesters behind me I was just getting used to taking instruction and sending assignments online.
It all felt new and frustrating to me. Nothing about going back to school seemed familiar. But there was also an inkling of another feeling. Excitement? Satisfaction? I wasn’t sure. But there was something; something I hadn’t felt in a while. I instinctively knew that “new” was worth exploring.
Still, what could I do with a blog? Just more work, I thought. My daughter pushed me for an idea.
“Alright, alright”, I said, “what if I did something new I’ve never done before every week?”
She laughed, “Every week? What about every day?!”
“How am I going to do something new every day?”
“Easy”, she said. “Let’s make a list. Let’s see: walk up to a complete stranger and start a conversation, don’t curse all day, learn to juggle, eat something really weird like bugs…”
“Whoa, girl. First, I am going to need a blog; a web site, right? I’ll make you a deal. You build the website and I’ll start January 1st.”
Honestly, I didn’t think she’d do it, but within a couple days One Year of Firsts was born. Alexa built the web site and I had to keep my end of the bargain. Once we started plotting and planning I felt kind of scared but thrilled. My brain cells were buzzing. Hmmm. Could I follow through on this? An entire year of first time experiences?
The Polar Bear Plunge was my idea; a crazy idea. Every year I saw the news clips of people jumping into the frigid ocean on New Years Day I’d always say “that’s completely nuts.” Still, I was fascinated by it; the symbolic act of starting a new year by shocking your body in icy water. I knew it was really about shocking the mind; an intentional wake up call to life and living it fully!
What better way to start off One Year of Firsts. That’s what I thought until I got there. I really wanted to go home and forget the whole thing except that funny feeling of scared and excited at the same time filled me. I’ve learned since then this is usually a good sign you are doing exactly what you should be doing. Experienced plungers told me the plunge doesn’t count unless you go completely in the water over your head. AHHH. I asked for their help and told them to hold my hands and just pull me in. I wasn’t sure I could do it myself. They were only too happy to assist.
You can go on my blog to see the results. I came out of the water shrieking. I was shrieking and happy. I’d done something absolutely and completely out of my comfort zone. I felt a kinship to these fellow plungers that I just met. “I get the secret”, I thought. “This isn’t just a stunt. This is important.”
At the time of this writing I’m on day 249 of Firsts and my life has changed. I have changed. I have tackled crazy things like eating a scorpion, riding a mechanical bull, zip lining, smoking a cigar. I’ve done things that made me feel uncomfortable: spend a day in a wheelchair, go up to a complete stranger on the street and start a conversation, sing in front of hundreds of people. Friends, family and blog fans have shared their passions with me: telling a good joke, making homemade pasta, skate boarding.
Today I’m completely comfortable with learning new technology. I’ve dived into social media. I facebook with the best and I tweet every day. I’ve learned to shoot and edit videos for my blog. I’m now open, not closed, to all the changes in my business. I found myself incorporating what I learned through my personal blog into my work. I found new ways to promote and market stories I was working on. I no longer ask the interns to do web work for me. If I don’t know how to do something, I’m much more confident in figuring it out or asking for help.
I volunteered at work to do more things that were outside of my normal sphere. As a result I’m working on an entertainment show, anchoring more and being asked to work on a new show. Through an intern I made a connection with a local college that’s asked me to teach an investigative reporting class to grad students. I’m moderating a panel at a statewide conference on reinventing yourself.
What I’ve really learned is, if you’re stuck, nothing changes until you change. You have to change what you’re doing. You have to get outside the box you’re in, see yourself differently for something different to happen. You don’t necessarily need to know where you’re headed, just light a fire under yourself and move toward something that gives you that tingle; that excited but a little scared feeling. Start small. Take one step, then another. It will feel uncomfortable at first. It should. It’s new.
When you start to do things outside your normal realm your friends may think it’s crazy but they’ll be intrigued too. You’d be surprised how you’ll inspire them and you’ll be rewarded by what they share with you. Being open to expanding your social network online and in real life will expand and reinvigorate your life too.
People ask me now, what’s your favorite “First”? It’s funny. The firsts I love the best are not necessarily the big adventure things like repelling, or the race car driving. I love the thrills of those firsts but I’m more interested in the ones that surprise me like taking a golf lesson. I thought I’d hate it. I loved it. I can’t draw but I was so calm and happy in a drawing class with a nude model. Go figure. I made a lifetime memory slugging through a 10K mud run for MS. Going through 26 obstacles in the mud was crazy but the best part was meeting and joining a fantastic team of young women who pulled me through it. I like the experiences that make me say “ahhh, I’ll be back for seconds”, like rowing on the river.
But my absolute favorite was the day I walked up to an older gentleman I didn’t know sitting on a park bench and started to talk to him. I thought he was homeless. He wasn’t. He was just sad and alone. He ended up telling me his wife just died from breast cancer. I told him I was a breast cancer survivor. We talked about his life and it turned out he’d been a business man, travelled around the world but now he felt lost. We had a personal sweet conversation.
When I finally started to leave he asked “how did you pick me? How did you pick me to talk to?”
I said, “I don’t know. I just did.”
We both recognized in that moment the impact of making what might seem to be one random move. It didn’t seem random in the end. It seemed like something that was supposed to be. We both walked away feeling connected and in awe of a world where something almost magical can happen if you step outside your normal path. I just knew, right then, I was on my way to getting unstuck, living a full, fresh and constantly evolving life every day.