This Is Nothing

Insane Graduate School Edition



“Microsteps” is a term I picked up recently from a book I’m reading about introverts. A microstep is a movement so small it may seem nearly imperceptible, and yet still it moves you forward. By tiny movements forward, you make progress without overwhelming. It’s a tough thing for a spazmo like me, because I always want to try harder than I need to, and then get overwhelmed when I actually TRY to do that much.

It reminds me of learning Jiu Jitsu: I was working with this tiny, fierce lady whose name I can’t remember. As we went through one particular move, she shook her head, and pointed out: “You’re taking too many steps. More steps than you need to. Stop thinking about the move and just DO it.” I took a deep breath, shut off my brain and just did the move, quickly and without a lot of fancy stepping: the move went seamlessly.

Many years later, I was in an Argentine Tango class and having trouble. I kept losing my balance, kept getting yelled at for making my moves too big. “You have to collect your feet” one of the dancers advised me. Collect my feet? The phrase means to return your balance to underneath yourself after every step. Especially for such a close, subtle dance like Argentine tango, you have to always be collected and in control of your own balance, though you might lean a little into your partner.

A year or two after that, I found myself learning another lesson in bellydance: turning. From my early days in ballet, I wanted to whip around, up high on my toes. But that was a big no-no. Basic turns in Middle Eastern Dance, I found, were actually just walking. Your feet kept going calmly forward while you turned over yourself.

And now here I am, working very hard on my shimmies. The shimmy we’re learning starts simply: alternately bending and relaxing your knees to get your hips moving up and down on each side. By drilling it slowly, I can get up to the middle pace and keep the movement relaxed, but at fast speeds my knees tense up and the movement becomes a shiver. “It’s just that your legs are moving SO FAST” observed my teacher about a year ago. It was only yesterday that I realized I might be trying to do the move an order of magnitude faster than I need to.

It all comes back to how I’ve treated academic challenges in life up until graduate school: I’ve thrown myself into the assignment—typically at the last minute—I’ve overextended myself to get the task perfect. But there is no calm control in this approach: I try to do too much, too late, and expect it to be too perfect. And I’ve gotten by with that approach for a long time, with much success. But long before this flailing approach failed in graduate school, I was already being told it didn’t work in Jiu Jitsu, tango, and bellydance. Maybe the body is just more honest, or maybe I just can’t wield it as well as my brain.

I’m starting to see the value of the microstep. Of the small movement that seems too easy, but is all you really need to move forward, and leaves you ready to make another microstep, instead of flailing about and losing balance and focus. We’ll see how this impatient young lady can implement this concept . . .


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