When Things Are Overwhelming, It Helps to Remember This

Stay in touch with those memories of the times when you were lost or confused.

I’ll never forget my first few weeks on the campus of the University of Maryland. Like most freshman, I was both excited and overwhelmed. The very size of the university was intimidating, and with a wide variety of required freshman classes, it was extremely challenging to find my way around the campus. I remember thinking to myself: “How in the world can anyone find their way around this place?!”

I wasn’t sure I would be able to find my classes, so before classes had actually begun, I spent time figuring out where my classes would be held, and a route from one class to the next one. I went from the high-rise dorm I was living in, across campus to the “hill”, from there to the “mall”, and from there, to my dorm. It appeared to be an endless maze, and the task of actually learning my route and locations seemed nearly impossible. I was in awe of those who seemed to know their way around, and when lost, I was grateful to those who politely pointed me in the right direction in an empathetic and simple manner.

Then, a funny thing happened. Within a few weeks, what had felt impossible seemed more than probable. I no longer laid awake at night, worrying about whether I’d find my lecture halls, and I began to accept my rather shaky command of my surroundings. A few weeks after that, I became downright confident. I never forgot, however, how tough that darn campus was to navigate, and I tried to emulate those who had been polite and helpful to me when someone asked me for directions. To this day, particularly when people ask for clarification on the techniques and processes I teach, I try to be patient. I also try to keep it simple. Sometimes I’m more patient then other times, and that’s often because I can’t figure out why something can be so difficult for someone to understand when it seems so simple to me… until I remember those first few days on campus.

I remind you of this story because this particular scenario plays out over and over again, throughout our lives. The first few days on a job, or learning a new task or process, can be overwhelming, but often there are a few kind souls who patiently bring you up to speed. I’d like to think that the reason they can be so helpful is because they’ve stayed in touch with the confusion he or she may have felt when they were in your shoes.

There are two lessons in play here. The first is rather obvious, and it’s a lesson in empathy. If you’re looking for a reminder on empathy, often you don’t have to look further than your own past. Think back to a time when you were confused about something, and there were those who quietly mentored you in that area. The mentors rarely performed those tasks with much fanfare, so you’ll have to spend a moment to retrieve the memories of those teachers.

The second lesson is to remember that, regardless of how well you’ve mastered a difficult task, everyone starts as a beginner and feels a level of vulnerability. We’ve all heard the acronym, K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid). I’m not a fan of a calling people “stupid” so I like the kinder, gentler, K.I.S.K. (Keep It Simple Knucklehead.)

Both lessons lead to the same conclusion. Stay in touch with those memories of the times when you were lost or confused, and if you are having trouble recalling one, feel free to borrow mine. Remembering those moments will allow you to do something very important; walk in another person’s shoes.