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  • J.M. Kessler

It's an Olympic Year (again)

Opa! Last year, Tokyo hosted the pandemic-delayed 2020 Summer Olympic Games, and with the Beijing Winter Games underway now (and the Paralympic Games next month), I'm reminded of when the the Summer and Winter Games took place in the same year every four years. In 1986, the IOC voted to split the Games, placing them in rotation after the 1992 Games, which were followed by the Winter Games two years later in Lillehammer, Norway. One of the reasons for separating the Games was to give more attention to the winter sports, which I find puzzling. I remember watching the Winter Games as far back as 1976, and I couldn't imagine anyone not watching them. Every four years, in the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, we had something glorious and amazing happening in the world. Of course I was watching. But winter is the season of dormancy, and many people have a hard time with that. It can be difficult to feel happy, let alone hopeful, during the cold, dark months. So, separating the Games to shine a light of hope in winter; well played.

And so here we are again. While athletes compete and hope for a win, spectators marvel and imagine having those seemingly superhuman skills and being lauded on the podium. We may not all be Olympians, but we can certainly be champions. We can be the champion of our dreams, our work, our day, or of someone else. It's all good. Even when we fail.

I'm always inspired by the Olympic Games. Those are human beings doing those things. And I'm a human being. And isn't it amazing what we can do? Even if it's not the thing I do, I'm connected to it by the wonder of what is possible. So, of course it fills me with awe and inspiration. And it makes me proud to belong to the human race, when that's not always easy to feel. It's a time to refocus on the very best I can be, the best of what I've got, and to fill up on hope.

And hope is a necessity, because I will fail. I will make mistakes. When I was younger, failure and mistakes were crushing blows. They meant defeat, it was over, not trying that again because obviously I can't do it. But I've been learning to regard failure and mistakes as interesting curves and metrics; markers that show me where I am, and maybe a give me a new route to where I want to be.

The stories that most inspire me are not the ones where the heroine does everything right, but the ones where the heroine has to figure stuff out to make it right. We all need to know how to work with setbacks, how to fix something that went wrong, and how to get back up after a fall, because those things will happen.

Many years ago I took up cross-country skiing, just for fun. One of the first lessons I learned was how to fall and get back up again. This is particularly difficult on cross-country skis because they have no edges. But while learning how to recover will get you back on your feet, the really wonderful thing about it is that when you do fall, and you will, you'll already know what to do, and that will feel like a win.

Learning to do things correctly, without mistakes, is great, but it's a finite ability and it can lead to fear of failing, or perfectionism. Dean of Pixar University Randy Nelson says, "The core skill of innovators is error recovery not failure avoidance." The ability to learn from mistakes teaches us resilience and adaptability. And knowing that you can correct a mistake, that you can find another way, that you can get back up, that's infinite possibility. That's hope.

By the way, my instructor for that lesson was Jana Hlavaty, a Prague native who skied cross-country for the United States in the 1976 Olympic Games. (Yeah, I was taught by an Olympian.)

I recently added Greek to my Duolingo lessons. ώττα! My first lessons went really well, especially considering that it's my first time learning a new alphabet. I was acing all the lessons (just the basics, here) and feeling perfectly brilliant. And then I got one wrong. And wow, that was crushing. It was an easy question that I got wrong, which only made it worse, and all those old feelings gathered around me in an instant. So what did I do? I stopped, I looked at what I got wrong, and I felt embarrassingly stupid. (Hardly a world-stage failure, I know.) But after that, I looked at why I got it wrong; I'd rushed through the question. Identifying what went wrong, I was able to correct it by slowing down. (A win is a win no matter how small.) And the interesting thing to me isn't so much what I'm learning, but what I'm learning about myself, about how I learn. And recover.

It's Also the Year of the Tiger

The tiger is, among other things, a symbol of hope. And so this year, I'm reminding myself to feed the tiger.

Duolingo Plus provides a lesson that allows you to practice your mistakes. While it felt all sorts of good getting the correct answers after my wrong one, naturally I was wanting to avoid another fail. So I practiced my mistakes, first by taking my time. Much like a tiger stalking her prey through the tall grass (or maybe nothing like that), I increased my chances of success by being patient with myself. I also practiced the words and phrases I'd gotten wrong in order to remember them correctly, rather than remember them as "the ones I get wrong." That sort of thinking will keep me in a rut, repeating the same mistakes. And the thing is, I'll continue to make mistakes as I learn, which is good because it means I'm doing something, and that's loads more exciting than doing nothing. Let's face it, it would be a lot easier not to learn Greek, but what kind of conversation does that make? ("What are you doing these days?"/ "I'm not learning Greek."/ "Huh.") And while I may not become fluent, at least I'll have fun trying.

Tigers, unlike most cats, love to be in the water, sometimes to cool off, but mostly because they love to play in it. Other felines may find the idea anathema, but tigers are having too much fun to notice. Or care. Tigers will be tigers.

All this is to say that I'm feeling hopeful about learning Greek. I hope you are feeling hopeful about something. And it doesn't matter if you're placing your hope in something the size of an Olympic dream or the size of a snowflake. The world can always do with just a little more hope.


  • I've joined the Wordle world. It's a great brain tease and workout, and the best part is that you play it only twice a day rather than all day long. The worst part is that I spend the rest of the day mentally collecting five-letter words for my next game.

  • In the kitchen, I've been trying out some paleo bread recipes, or as my SO calls it, dinosaur bread. So far I've had success, except that I don't have a proper bread pan. (I have a silicon loaf pan, but the wire rack that it sits in went astray on one of our moves, so the loaf ends up more of a lump.)

  • Watching "Resident Alien." Perfectly ridiculous, the kind of thing I love to get me through the dark days of winter, and pandemics.

  • New thing I'm trying: Solid shampoo and conditioner. I love that it decreases plastic bottle usage. And it works great. While I'm not crazy about Ethique's Pinkalicious scent (it reminds me of bubble gum), it doesn't linger in your hair. The small bars last a long time and don't take up as much space as bottles. And they're easy to use. If you can use bar soap, you can use bar shampoo.

  • And this really cool thing I found in a writer's group. At the end of every week this year, I'm writing down one thing I accomplished on a piece of paper, with the date and week number, and placing it in a glass jar. On New Year's Eve, I'll read all the things I did each week, so even if it feels like I didn't accomplish much or anything, I have proof that I did. I love that it focuses on a weekly action, not a weekly goal, which can create stress if the goal is getting away from you. This version is more free-form. Anything from reading a book to finishing a draft to posting an article can go in the jar. It's a much more fun way to be productive. And it often means having to choose which thing goes in the jar that week, which can make you feel super productive.


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