A 60 year old man came up at the end of a presentation. I had been talking about one of the markers of resilient leaders being their ability to go beyond comfort. Expecting a conversation about his leadership, I was surprised when he began by confessing, “I have never learnt to ride a bike”. His colleague over hearing then added, “How do I learn a new sport as a middle aged man, when I know I won’t be any good”. The answer to both their comments was the same: find a purpose and you will find the courage. There is an apochryphal story that Albert Einstein learned to ride a bike when he was 80. The truth of the story is less important than its message. Learning to ride a bike at 80 cannot have been easy, but if he did so, he did it because he found a reason why riding a bike was now important to him. It may have been linked to reduced mobility, or it may have been directed by the desire to master a new skill. Whatever the reason, he had a purpose, and that purpose sustained him through the embarrassment of the failed attempts that were necessary before his body had the physical memory of how to balance on 2 wheels.
What was holding back the rookie tennis player was the belief that he looked a fool on the tennis court, even though he was a successful businessman. He was trapped by a sense that he should be good, and therefore he was judging himself harshly for his constant double faults and inability to hit the ball where he wanted to. His fear of being bad was the very thing that was ensuring he could not be good. He needed to replace fear with purpose. What else could tennis give him beyond winning? Once he finds that purpose: whether it is doing something with his children, enjoying being outdoors, or making new friends, it will be easier to quieten the internal critic and pay curious attention to what he is doing with his racquet. It is probable that the less he worries about his technique, the better his technique will become.
It is undoubtably harder to expose oneself to failure as one grows older. No toddler ever judges their attempts to walk as so abysmal that they will give up walking. They are so directed by the desire to have their first experience of independence that they simply pick themselves up and start again. They are not afraid of failure because they accept it as secondary to achieving a desired end. As adults we need to accept the value in continuing to expose ourselves to new learning and risk, and define the reason for doing so, more broadly than being the best.