get a hobby

A Psychologist Explains How to Conquer Your Fear of Trying New Things

Photo-Illustration: Stevie Remsberg; Photos: Getty Images

The first and only time I attempted skiing could best be described as a chilly exercise in humiliation. I took the beginners’ class not once, but twice, the instructor telling everyone to go have fun on the slopes and then immediately pointing at me. “Not you,” she said. “You can stay here for another round.” After the second time, she dismissed everyone else and beckoned me over.

“This is Joe,” she said, gesturing toward another ski instructor standing next to her. “Joe likes to ski with the ones who need a little extra attention.” For the next hour or so, I held on to the end of one of Joe’s ski poles as he skied backwards in front of me, yelling encouraging phrases. My first time flying solo after he left, I fell so many times that I eventually sat on the slope, took off my boots, and trudged the rest of the way down, my friends cackling and snapping photos from the bottom.

Later, as I peeled off my socks and scrolled through the social-media evidence of that morning’s disaster, I made a decision: Skiing was not going to be my new hobby. My new hobby, at least for the rest of the trip, would be drinking in hot tubs, mostly because it was something I already knew how to do.

The thing that no one mentions about stretching yourself is that it really sucks sometimes. Yes, trying new things is exciting and mind-expanding and all that, but it can also be awkward and embarrassing. No one likes to wallow in their own ineptitude. Unfortunately for beginners of all things everywhere, wallowing in your own ineptitude is inevitable if you want to learn French, or take up knitting, or join a bowling league, or whatever new hobby you have in mind. Here are a few ways to feel a little better about launching yourself into a new experience – and help you get over the hump of that initial misery to the part where it’s actually fun.

Remember that it’s fine and normal to not love it right away.

No matter what new skill it is you’re trying to pick up, you probably won’t have a blast at the beginning. In fact, we’re wired to be wary of new experiences, says organizational behavior researcher Keith Rollag, a management professor at Babson College and the author of What to Do When You’re New: How to Be Comfortable, Confident, and Successful in New Situations. “From an evolutionary standpoint, trying new things, for much of human history, could have been dangerous,” he says. “Your performance can have a big impact on your status,” and status, in turn, affects our ability to get the resources we need. For our far-back ancestors, not looking dumb was an issue of survival.

All of which means that “deep in our brains there’s a primeval fear of looking bad, a fear of not performing as well as others,” Rollag explains. “One of the challenges with new hobbies is the fact that you’re meeting new people, new groups, new experiences, and that triggers a lot of that anxiety we have about being the newcomer.” In other words: Not loving it right away isn’t a sign that you’ve made a terrible mistake. It’s part of being human. Enjoyment will come as the newness fades.

Remember that no one’s paying attention to you.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the “spotlight effect,” our tendency to believe that all eyes are on us when, in reality, no one’s paying attention. If you’re feeling self-conscious, the spotlight effect can be a handy reality check: “If you’re on a ski slope, most people aren’t looking for the beginners, to laugh at them and evaluate them,” Rollag says. “They’re just going down the mountain.”

If that’s not enough to ease your jitters, try thinking through the logic of it. In order to truly humiliate yourself in front of other people, those other people have to actually be watching you. And that’s just the first step, Rollag says: “People have to notice your performance, they have to know that it’s bad … they have to care about it, and they have to do something about it,” like openly laughing or pointing you out to other people.

Or turn the tables around. Say you’re a runner, for example: How often, when you’re out on a run, do you get out of your own head enough to notice and judge some stranger who’s huffing and puffing as they jog by? Not that often, right? That’s everybody else, too.

Go in with the right mind-set.

People tend to approach a new skill in one of two ways: Some go in wanting to learn it, while others go in wanting to master it. It seems like a subtle difference, but it matters: The former, Rollag explains, “is, ‘I know I don’t really know how to do this, I’m going to make mistakes, but the fun in this is sort of figuring out how to do it,’” while the latter “is all about doing well, impressing others, discovering your natural talent in something.” Going in with the humility of the learning approach allows you to enjoy yourself even as you’re floundering — after all, it’s just part of the process. Gunning for mastery, on the other hand, sets you up for failure pretty quickly.

That’s not to say it’s all about the journey — it’s good to still have an end goal in mind. It can help, though, to think carefully about what that end goal should be, and to start with a beginner-friendly one. Maybe your new hobby is marathons, for example; running one in under four hours is a goal, sure, but getting in shape and meeting other runners are worthy outcomes, too.

Prepare before you start.

Taking the learning approach also doesn’t mean you have to go in blind — whatever you’re trying, doing a little prep work beforehand can make your first time a lot less intimidating.

“To the extent that people can rehearse things, it’s almost as if they’ve partly done it,” Rollag says. “So the more you can reduce those emotions and those feelings [of anxiety], the more likely that somebody will have a good experience.” Want to try your hand at baking? Before you actually bust out the kitchen equipment, maybe watch a few YouTube tutorials and take a few minutes to look up all the terms you don’t know. Taking up golf? It’s fine to read a book on the sport before you head to the driving range — a baseline of knowledge will help you feel a little better the first time you try swinging a club.

It’s advice I wish I’d taken. Leading up to that ski trip a few years ago, I earnestly believed that skiing was just snowplowing in a straight line down a mountain; it wasn’t until the first ill-fated lesson that I learned you could zig and zag. I’m not saying that knowing this ahead of time would have prevented the whole Joe fiasco, but at the very least, it might have gotten me back on skis the next day. Drinking in hot tubs is fun, but it’s not as satisfying as doing what you set out to do.

How to Conquer Your Fear of Trying New Things