Muscle memory and work

I took several years of piano lessons as a child; my level of skill would kindly be described as “intermediate.” I still play occasionally, though—my parents gifted me the very old Steinway upright that I first took lessons on, which has an astonishingly crystal-clear, bell-like tone to it, unlike the velvety, more furry sounds I’ve heard from baby grands and grands. It gives me intense pleasure, particularly around the Christmas holidays, and especially during the pandemic, to sit down and bang out a tune or two.

One of the things I think about, while I’m playing, is how my brain and arm and finger muscles all work together to retain what little skill I have. I mean, I learned a fairly advanced version of the “Rainbow Connection” in 1981, for pete’s sake—and yet I still can play that piece, in A major (three sharps) with a degree of fluency. (I can’t tell you how much I love that song, and how remembering Kermit singing it on a log still makes me tear up.) When I sit down to play it, I literally picture my brain pulling out the memory file before I start the piece and sending all of the right messages to my arms and fingers and saying, “Ok, peeps—let’s do this! Again!”

Muscle memory, I think, is very much a thing with work, too. Since moving out to California from the East Coast almost 12 years ago, I’ve changed jobs four times, and now that I’m a consultant, I change jobs all the time. Transitions are hard. Learning new commutes, new computer systems, new phone-and-voice mail systems, new ways to have meetings—all of these things are apt to reduce me to puddles of anxiety and stress. And the hardest muscles to develop, I think, are the ones that teach you how to interact with new colleagues. After you meet new people, you may eventually recognize patterns of behavior that help you learn how to be with someone—like, oh, this person likes to focus on things at the detail level, so maybe it’s my role to occasionally steer the conversation towards the big picture. This person always says such smart things (and is also really funny) so maybe I can hang back and listen more than I talk. But I’ve always thought that the beginning of meeting new people can sometimes feel like the beginning of learning how to go for a run—just, you know, really difficult and painful.

When I say “muscle memory,” I’m not just referring to the physical aspects of learning new things, although there’s usually a physical element, too. (Like when I had to commute from our home in Silicon Valley to San Francisco—I patched together a commute that involved walking a mile to the train station, taking the express train, and then figuring out the best way to get from the train station to my office, a mile and a half down the Embarcadero. God, was I a mess. I even tried a kick-scooter for a while, until I wiped out on a sidewalk crack. While admiring a person’s dog.) I’m also referring to muscle memory in your brain—the act of forcing my tired old mental muscles to learn something new through exposure, practice, and then constant repetition. Think about it—if you still drive a car, you know that there are physical things you have to do. But your brain doesn’t even have to think about those things, like accelerating or braking or activating the turn signal, because your brain has built up its mental driving muscles over time—many years of time, in my case.

I don’t know what’s happening to my mental muscle memories with respect to work, during these years of being isolated as a consultant and because of a pandemic. In my early years of being a consultant, I could count on a few meetings a year in person to help keep that part of my work muscle-memory exercised. But now, in 2022, it’s been years since I’ve had an in-person work meeting, and I am resigned to the expectation that whenever it happens, I will find it hard. Like, really hard. Like, I may sweat a lot. Like, I may blurt out dumb or nonsensical things.

That’s okay, though. I guess the point of this piece is that even though I’ve found it harder and harder to adapt to new work situations and new people as I get older—just like I find physical exercise more painful and debilitating in ways I never did when I was younger—the one thing I’ve gotten much better at during these past incredibly weird and sometimes challenging years is self-forgiveness. I have gotten better at forgiving myself after messing up, after my brain neurons misfire, or if I’m fumbling around at something and I’m not able to figure out how to properly do something yet. I still have moments of utter, writhing humiliation when I DO screw up—like when I sent the wrong version of a first draft to a client, I was like, jeez louise, PULL YOURSELF TOGETHER. But I have gotten better at getting past my mistakes (I used to think I should never make any, period) and I have also gotten better at forgiving other people’s mistakes and fumbling around, too. We all need to learn new things—or in some cases, we need to re-learn the things we once knew. Let’s remember that—and please be kind to me, if you ever run into me in person and I look a little shiny, or I’m blurting out random shit. I’m just trying to make my muscles stronger.