Telling the Lizard Brain to Quiet Down

Yesterday, I was watching Gilmore Girls with Kavi, and Rory was giving her high school graduation speech; she thanked her mom for always giving her the confidence that she could do anything.

That’s not actually something I tell my kids. I mean, it’s not TRUE. There are lots of things they won’t be able to do in this life.

Hard work, discipline, and determination will get you pretty far, but my kids weren’t born with the genetic gifts that would let them have a career in pro basketball, for example. Maybe ‘you can do anything’ isn’t the right message?


For our 25th anniversary party, my sisters were giving speeches, and they asked Kevin what he loved about me, and he said something about how I wasn’t afraid to dive right into large and difficult things. It was very sweet, but also kind of funny, because I don’t think of that as something that takes effort on my part. I shouldn’t get extra credit for it; that’s just how my brain works.

I’ve been reading about ADD, and one characteristic of the ADD brain seems to be that it approaches risk differently than what we’re calling the neurotypical brain. (I have serious doubts about all of these formulations of typical / atypical, etc., but it’s what we’re working with for right now, so.) People with ADD tend to be seen as risk-takers by the general population.

I might phrase that differently. What if the general population has an overdeveloped sense of caution? Which was probably useful when we were barely surviving in the Stone Age, with sabertooths (saberteeth?) and other predators lurking just outside the safety of the cave. But maybe now those instincts are getting in our way, a lot of the time?


Leaving aside situations that are actually potentially dangerous — I don’t want to get sidetracked into conversations about women traveling alone, or how cautious you should be on a city subway — it seems like that cautious instinct keeps people from trying new things, all the time.

It’s been startling to me, working on these cookbooks for the past few years, to find out how many people are actually afraid of cooking. Lots and lots and lots of people. Afraid of knives, afraid of burning things, afraid of trying new foods, or new spices, or new cooking techniques.

I think most people’s brains pose the question, “What’s the worst that could happen?” when they’re deciding whether to try something new. And okay, the worst that can happen with cooking is probably that you slice your finger off or burn down your house, and those are both pretty bad. But that’s incredibly rare. That’s not the standard you should be comparing yourself against.

Instead, try something like, “What’s the most likely bad outcome?” Well, then the answer is something like, you ruin a meal, and have to eat burnt food, or over-salted food, or just toss it and eat cereal for dinner.


I want to acknowledge here that privilege factors in mightily — the more economic and other privilege you have, the more margin for error you have. If you can’t afford to ruin a meal, because that means you and your kids can’t afford to eat that night, then the stakes are a lot higher for you.


But often, the stakes just aren’t very high when you’re thinking of trying something new, like learning to knit, or learning a language, or learning how to sew a zippered bag.

Your brain may be shouting at you, “If you mess up, something terrible will happen!” Maybe the terrible thing is that you look foolish in front of your friends or classmates, or that you aren’t immediately good at something (which can be a blow to your ego), or that you just feel clumsy or stupid.


So I guess this New Year’s Day, I wanted to remind you of a few things, the kinds of things I try to convince my kids of (that they don’t necessarily believe yet, but we’re working on it). Messages from me and my ADD brain:

• It can help to ask ‘what’s the most likely bad outcome?’ when deciding whether to attempt something a little scary. (Remember to ask ‘what’s the most likely good outcome too?’)

• The hardest part is often at the beginning, which is terribly unfair, but there it is (knitting is particularly annoying in this regard). Just because you feel clumsy and stupid the first few times you try to sew a zippered bag, making a different mistake or two each time, that doesn’t mean you’ll still be having trouble ten zippered bags later. Have faith in the process.

• You don’t have to be good at everything; you can just enjoy something even if you do it badly. I love to sing, and sometimes I wander off-key. I sing anyway.

• You can also try something, decide it’s not for you, and stop doing it. That’s just fine! (I’m a little stubborn, so it takes a while for me to admit that I’m really not enjoying something, and the frustration likely isn’t worth the end result, but eventually even I get there. I don’t enjoy tasks that require lots of painstaking attention to detail for long stretches of time, and I’m not good at them. That’s fine! Other people excel in that area.)

• Your friends and family will still like you even if you aren’t good at something right away, or at all.

• If you’re trying something new, it can help a lot to have the structure of a class, with assignments and deadlines, to help you get over the anxiety.

• If you can convince a friend to try the new thing with you, even better. There’s a lot of laughter and bonding to be found in joint failures. 🙂


Tell that lizard brain to quiet down; it’s not the boss of you!

Wishing you all many joyful attempts at new things, successful or not, in the New Year!


(Pic is of a scarf I designed — fabric design is a new thing I started working on during the pandemic. It was a little nerve-wracking taking it on without the structure of a class to help! This is my favorite of all my designs, but there were many failures along the way. That’s okay!)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *