Back in my mid-20s, when I was struggling mightily to get healthy, I had an important and painful realization: I was missing some important skill sets.
I kept running into problems following whole-food eating plans because they required me to shop, menu-plan, and cook in ways I didn’t feel confident about. I wasn’t clear on what a “balanced” diet was. I wasn’t sure what to do with kale or kohlrabi. I didn’t know much about macro or micronutrients. And I knew even less about things like satiety, glycemic load, and the microbiome.
I ran into problems with exercise programs, too, because I didn’t understand the language of sets and reps. I didn’t have the first clue what “proper form” was. I didn’t get the concepts of interval and heart-rate training, much less how to do them properly. I was terrified to attend a yoga class because I felt I didn’t know how to do it.
And when it came to rebooting my daily patterns — my schedule, my habits, my wake–sleep and energy cycles, all the random little tasks and competencies required to facilitate healthy living — I got overwhelmed.
I didn’t really know where to start, or how to overcome my own inertia and fear of change. I didn’t understand how to assess my mindset or recognize my own unhealthy thought patterns and beliefs, and I knew even less about how to shift and evolve them.
I just wanted it all to be easier. For a long time, I kept wishing I could just go live with a healthy person and see how all this healthy-living stuff was done.
In reality, though, I realized that was probably not going to happen anytime soon. I got bored with my own excuses and realized my frustrated, defeated, “but-I-don’t-know-how” stance was radically limiting my ability to make the changes I wanted to make. So I gave myself a little pep talk.
I had made it through a pretty rigorous college education, I told myself, and in my lifetime, I’d managed to learn to do all kinds of things I had once been clueless about, like riding a bicycle and operating a computer. Reality: In every single case that I’d successfully learned something useful, I’d had to start from a place of not knowing how.
It was no different with healthy living, I decided. I just had to start where I was, and put the focus on getting better, smarter, more masterful with time. I could learn how to work with whole foods and how to eat consciously. I could learn how to exercise intelligently and enjoyably.
I could learn how to manage my time, energy, and priorities. I could learn how to navigate my own emotions and mindsets more skillfully.
And little by little, I did. The more I learned, the easier things got. The easier things got, the more energy and momentum I had to keep learning.
The hardest part, really, was just admitting that I didn’t know a bunch of stuff I really needed to know. The next hardest part was deciding not to beat myself up or wallow in shame and self-pity about that.
The actual learning part? That turned out to be pretty fun.
I took it on like I’d approached my academic studies. I read books, I looked stuff up, I asked people who knew more than I did, I tried things out as “assignments,” and I practiced what I’d learned.
I also experimented with lots of things until I found what I liked and what worked for me.
Of course, I couldn’t learn everything at once. My strategy was to start with my four biggest pain points:
1. A lack of whole-food and cooking knowledge
2. A fear of feeling and looking stupid while exercising
3. Self-destructive, unconscious eating patterns
4. A tendency to seek refuge from anxiety and emotional discomfort by watching television
To tackle the first challenge, I decided that I would check out some healthy cookbooks from the library and start with just three recipes that looked appealing. I would then look up anything I had to know in order to complete the instructions for those recipes.
This meant that if a recipe said “sauté shrimp” and I wasn’t sure how to do that properly, I would look up every step I didn’t know (from peeling and deveining the shrimp to deglazing the pan) until I could figure it out.
It was a slow process. At the time, I couldn’t afford cooking lessons, and online cooking videos were still a rarity. So I asked my mom and food-smart friends for pointers, and gradually, I started getting the hang of it.
Same thing with exercise. I screwed up my courage, got myself to a couple of beginning group fitness and yoga classes. I quickly learned enough to exercise effectively without hurting myself. Nobody made fun of me, and once I got over my fear of looking stupid, I rapidly got stronger. I started authentically enjoying the experience of moving my body.
My other challenges were more nuanced and complex. But as I read up on them, and did the work of experimenting with various self-observation and consciousness-shifting strategies, I discovered a rich trove of mindfulness practices that really helped.
As I journaled about my experi-ments (both successes and apparent failures), I discovered aspects of my personality I’d been previously unaware of. I developed new compassion and respect for myself, and gradually, I was able to approach eating, exercising, and stress management from a radically different — and much more empowered — place.
Admittedly, none of these were quick fixes. But they were utterly transformative and deeply satisfying, and every time I learned a new skill or had a big “aha” insight, it gave me new fuel to keep going.
Everybody’s journey with healthy living is different, but if you’ve been struggling to shift your life in healthier directions, the single greatest healthy-living skill I’d recommend building is this: Learn to switch from a fixed (or “judger”) mindset to a growth (or “learner”) mindset. (See the Revolutionary Reading below for more on how to do that.)
Once you get your head right about “not knowing” whatever it is you wished you knew, and you begin to take a curious (versus angst-ridden) approach to your learning process, you’ll find it much easier and more rewarding to learn anything you desire.
Whether it’s whole-food fundamentals and body-movement basics or personal-development and mindfulness essentials, the sooner you start building your healthy skill sets, the sooner being healthy will become not just easier, but far more fun and rewarding, too.
Pick one area where you feel stymied and start learning there. As your skills expand, so will your sense of possibility.
“Quick-Start Fitness: A Beginner’s Guide” — No idea what to do when you hit the gym? Here’s what you need to know to build a workout routine that works.
“Lines of Inquiry” — Learn how to shift from a “judger” mindset to a “learner” mindset and positively transform your life in the process.
“The Skillful Life” — A rundown of the essential skill sets for living healthy and happy, plus a checklist assessment of what you already know, and what you need to know next.
“How Healthy People Shop” — Five healthy-eating experts share their aisle-by-aisle grocery-procurement tips.