To say this year has been trying would be an enormous understatement.
I attempted to get a job with JET, an overseas teaching program run by the government of Japan, and failed. I applied for graduate school, was accepted to several institutions, but had to back out when I suffered an anxiety attack in July. This led to me leaving my job, moving out of my apartment, and applying for a completely different overseas teaching program. I nearly accepted their job offer before I realized that my destiny (and my sanity) both remained in America.
I’ve moved … twice. Once in September, and once just recently. I sold or gave away half of my possessions, which I spoke about a while back. Most of what I had left was in storage for months, which I’m now beginning to carry back into my new living space. I slept on my own floor for several weeks, and a few days just recently.
I also lost NaNoWriMo for a second year in a row, though I made significant progress on a novel during that time.
I’m in a better place than I was when the year began, in a literal and a metaphorical sense. Some of this pain was necessary: to confront my mental illness, to reconcile my heart’s desires with my mind’s plans, to get paid what I deserve.
Still, I haven’t suffered like some have, both abroad and among my closest friends. To paraphrase Charles Dickens, my own suffering is a drop in the vast ocean of humanity’s suffering.
This year, I’ve tried to grok what’s called a “growth mindset.” Research has shown that those who believe that their skillset can always improve with practice and effort often do better than those who think skills are inherent and fixed in quality. For example, the dancer who thinks they can master a very difficult routine with enough practice will do better than one who thinks the routine is just too difficult, no matter what they do.
I used to think of growth like insect metamorphosis. You start as some grubby caterpillar, consume as much as you can in your youth, go through a painful pupa of adolescence, and escape fully formed as a butterfly. Once you transformed into your adult self, you were done.
As a metaphor, it loses its usefulness after you’ve been an adult for some time. People can, and often do, evolve through middle age and beyond. That’s the power of a growth mindset: if you think you can change, you’re more likely to.
So instead of a butterfly, I present a better metaphor: the super saiyan.
Common in anime and manga, “super saiyan” refers to a kind of super-powered mode obtained by a hero. Sometimes a young protagonist just isn’t strong enough to defeat the villain without some kind of power upgrade. Through training, supernatural gifts, or sheer willpower, they gain the power necessary to finish the fight. But this doesn’t just happen once: as they meet more powerful adversaries, they find greater power, rising to each successive challenge. A related western concept is “leveling up,” where a game character improves their abilities through completing quests and winning fights.
Sure, it’s harder to change as an adult. Your physiology changes and you’ve adapted to years, maybe decades, of lifetime habits. But change, and therefore growth, isn’t just possible, but at the core of our existence. We change regardless: almost all of our cells divide constantly, leaving a practically new configuration of cells every few months. Each of us is essentially a continuing pattern of cell division and interaction, an “empty form” as some Buddhists would say.
Truly, unless I die at this very moment, this isn’t even my final form. I’ll continue to evolve, year after year, until my death at some indeterminate future. (Unless my mind is uploaded to the cloud, which is still a death for my body.) Our transformation can be directed or aimless. If I embrace the changes I undergo regardless of how much attention I give them, I can steer them in a direction that makes life easier for myself and others.