Cheaper Than Therapy
Harry taught me how to eat with chopsticks when I was 17 years old. I had taken a break from college to work full time, and we were colleagues. Our office was located in lower Manhattan near Chinatown, and every payday Harry and I walked to his favorite Chinese restaurant for the Friday lunch special.
“Do you know how to eat with chopsticks?” Harry asked me one day. “No,” I said, embarrassed. I had grown up in the shadow of New York City’s Chinatown, eating Chinese food countless times. I’d always looked past the wood or plastic chopsticks, unable to fathom how to tweeze slivers of meat or vegetables, never mind grains of rice.
My answer to Harry’s follow-up question, “Would you like to learn?” would change me forever.
Before I met Harry, I was a much too young college freshman who didn’t have a clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I had no models for collegiate experience in my immediate family, no one to guide me through the logistical labyrinth of higher education.
I managed to muddle through the admissions process for community college to test academia before committing to a four-year school. Yet, adrift in the turbulent waters of early adulthood, I skipped classes, which led to a transcript filled with F’s, and a decision to leave school after a year to find work.
That’s when I met Harry, and the timing was perfect. Harry listened to me over Chinese food every other Friday for a year. My overwhelming memory of him is one of trust.
When Harry asked, “Would you like to learn how to eat with chopsticks?” what had previously felt unfathomable seemed within my reach. The idea of becoming adept at using chopsticks presented itself as a door held ajar onto a kaleidoscopic world. If I could learn this, what other experiences might be available to me simply by being open to them? Who would I be? Who might I become?
During a tiny, quiet moment in a modest restaurant, Harry offered me a pathway to possibilities, a pathway that has informed the direction of my life.
“Yes,” I told him, “I would like to learn.”
At age 17, acquiring what seemed to me an uncommon skill did more than boost my cool quotient with people who knew me in my knife-and-fork days. It was the seedling of a new self, the formation of a willingness to push toward increasingly greater challenge.
For one thing, it emboldened me to confront my lifelong dread of math so I could take a college entrance exam. I still didn’t know what I wanted to study long-term. But my new-won confidence helped me to trust that I could determine my next steps when the time came.
At the end of my work year, I returned to school and eventually earned a master’s degree. I never saw Harry again. But I think of him when I teach others his simple, three-step-method for eating with chopsticks. He is there when I try something new without sweating the outcome. And he is with me each time I trust my instincts to shift my life in a new direction in spite of my resistance.
This is The Lesson of the Chopsticks.
That lesson helped lay the foundation for me to take bigger risks over the years, including a solo trip around the world, multiple career transitions, and a willingness to make my heart vulnerable more than once. And little risks, too – listening to music I had categorically dismissed, staying open to contrary opinions and driving down unfamiliar roads instead of bypassing them while continuing to wonder where they lead.
The psychic nerve that is irritated when, as novices, we attempt to eat with chopsticks may remind us of the chafing we feel when we brush against dreams deferred or actions not taken. Is that irritation a lack of patience? Doubt in our abilities? Fear of looking foolish or a reminder of past disappointments?
Exploring these possibilities for yourself is at the heart of Cheaper Than Therapy: How to Take Risks to Create the Life You Want.
The Lesson of the Chopsticks is an occasion to practice departures from the familiar and to take little risks as stepping stones to the big ones that matter most.