When I started teaching at 45, I made and laminated two signs that decorated my classroom for the entire 14 years of my second career. One was a large banner, adorned with hanging silver-painted Styrofoam balls, that stretched across the doorway into the classroom. It read, “Caution: Imaginations on the Loose.” The other was a poster that read, “A Mistake is a Risk You Take and Learn From.”
I’ve been reminded of both these homemade signs since I retired two years ago at 59. I let my imagination loose as I contemplated, and then did, a 70-day trip around the world as a first-time solo traveler. I let my imagination soar to a plan to move to Portugal before I turn 65. My loose imagination led me to start blogging for the first time three months ago. And I gave imagination free rein when I wondered if I could learn about the production of bourbon whiskey — my favorite distilled spirit — as an over-60 unpaid intern. After I successfully proposed my Midlife Reimagined Apprenticeship, someone on Instagram asked if it was a real thing or just something I thought up. I responded that it was something I thought up, and now it’s a real thing.
Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work? We give our imagination permission to roam untethered, we think up a crazy idea, and then turn the crazy idea into a real thing. Yeah. That’s how it can go, if we don’t let fear get in the way.
I sat on my “apprenticeship” idea for months, using the pandemic as a reasonable excuse at first. Then, I wondered if perhaps I really just feared no distillery would be interested in letting a 61-year-old female, arthritic, retired teacher work on a distillery floor. I’d done enough research to know that distillery operations involve heavy, dirty, potentially dangerous manual labor. There’s a titanium screw holding my right shoulder and bicep together. What if I couldn’t do the work? What if I couldn’t keep up? I have zero background in the distillery business, and any company agreeing to train a completely inexperienced newbie is taking on added responsibility and commitment of time and, therefore, money. What if I screwed up? What if I ruined some whiskey? What if I embarrassed myself?
I almost didn’t reach out to the CEO of Cleveland Whiskey, but when I did he was immediately receptive to my wacky idea. His company’s slogan is Whiskey Without Limits. How perfect a match is that?! Let’s hear it for Aging Without Limits…Midlife Women Without Limits…Retirement Without Limits…Authentic Living Without Limits. Yeah!
I can’t believe I almost let fear of my own wild imagination — and fear of rejection? — get in the way of this opportunity. That isn’t the way it’s supposed to go, but we know it is the way it sometimes does go. I talked about almost letting fear derail me in this week’s Reinvention Rebels podcast with Wendy Battles. Why do we let fear do that? And is it more prevalent among women than men?
Now that I’m in week three of my 12-week whiskey internship, I’m constantly reminded of my young students and my classroom Mistakes sign. I’m the only woman and the oldest person on the distillery floor. The guys there are terrific. They are patient and welcoming. My primary trainer is a fantastic teacher, breaking apart tasks in sequential, bite-sized modules using a straight-from-the-classroom I Do, We Do, You Do format. He gives descriptive feedback and encouraging praise, and when I f*ck up — which I definitely do — he lets me, then lets me figure out what I did wrong. A mistake is a risk you take and learn from.
Most importantly, he told me to stop being afraid. Not afraid of physical harm, but afraid of making a mistake and breaking something. Or looking stupid…or worse. (That ship sailed when I mistakenly headed to a garage door thinking it was the freight elevator. Or, when he explained a siphoning tool used after the filtering process. It’s called the “jack” but, based on how you operate it, I thought he added a second word — the opposite of “on” — after the tool name. So I later asked about using the “jack off” and…well…not good. I have not been summoned to HR yet, so I guess that is good.)
Despite these flubs, my trainer said he’d give me a B+ grade at my second week. He reminded me — as I’d reminded my students — not to lose confidence, because mistakes are how we learn. Of course I know this, preached this, as a teacher. But as a student, a true beginner, it’s easy to forget. I want an A grade.
As I wrote in this blog post, Tom Vanderbilt, in his book Beginners — The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning, stated that being a beginner at learning a completely new and different skill requires one to become comfortable with being uncomfortable. You have to become comfortable with the discomfort of making rookie mistakes and looking like a dumbass. It’s gonna take a while to get that A.
I’m learning a lot and having a blast, but this is still new territory for me. The guys assure me that the mistakes I’ve made are normal and to be expected. But still… As a teacher, I was used to multitasking and doing 15 things at once. On the distillery floor, tasks overlap and procedures flow very quickly, too. I am still going very slowly, referring to my written notes, and going step by step while talking to myself (out loud) and reviewing a checklist in my head multiple times. I’m resisting the second-grade teacher need to label, color-code, and attach Post-it Notes to everything. I’m not yet ready for overlapping and multitasking. It takes me longer to empty a barrel, clean a tank, connect and disconnect valves and hoses. Just like my students, if I try to rush through a process so I look smarter than I am, I fumble. As I always told my students: “Slow down, and be sure to always check your work.”
Having fun is also part of being a brand-new beginner. Vanderbilt is right. There is absolute joy in learning a new skill…in going from not knowing to knowing. Vanderbilt committed to learning five new skills: surfing, singing, drawing, juggling, and chess. I’ve committed to learning Portuguese, whiskey distilling, HTML 5 coding, and golf. My beginner golf lessons start next month. It’ll be interesting to see the reaction when I show up to my first lesson straight from the distillery and smelling like bourbon. I can’t wait.
Having Fun With More Teaching & Distilling Comparisons
💜Thank you to Canadian blogger Writer of Words, Etc for giving The Hot Goddess and my handy charts a shout-out! These are for you:
What do you want to learn as a beginner? Has fear of making mistakes ever held you back? Has fear that your imagination was a little too out there ever stopped you from pursuing an idea? Isn’t turning your back on overthinking, and just giving yourself permission to go the f*ck ahead and do it anyway, simply amazing? A mistake is a risk you take and learn from. Give your imagination permission to fly free.
All images from thehotgoddess.com retired_rewired_inspired.
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