Try Something New

Fall of 2017 held a turning point in my life. Both my kids were in college. In addition to the existential question of “what now?” that kept me up at night there was the very practical question of “what now?” as I no longer had cross country meets, orchestra concerts, theater productions, art shows and a plethora of other parental obligations to fill my time. So, for the first time in 21 years, I decided to go back to school.

Austin Community College has a reputable Metal Arts program that I had been eyeing for some time but had never seriously considered. I’m a fairly competent self-taught “maker” and I come from a line of craftsmen including my great grandfather who was a blacksmith in Clayton, New Mexico so I registered for an intro metal smithing class and bought some non-flammable pants.

In the first half hour of the first day of class I was hammering red hot steel on an anvil… and it was not pretty. I left at the end of that first five-hour class with blisters and burns that I luckily couldn’t feel because of how numb my hand was.

I’m two-thirds of the way through the semester now and I’ve found myself thinking more and more about my experience. Aside from the technical and skill side of the class, the experience and process of going back to school has stirred things up in the following ways:


Whenever the instructor came by my anvil during the first two classes to ask how I was doing I found myself quickly answering, “everything’s good” even if I was struggling with a technique or the order of steps. I just wanted him to move on to the next student as quickly as possible. By the third class I knew my progress would be limited if I continued to act as if I had it all figured out. I started asking questions, showing my work and talking about the challenges I was having; I practiced vulnerability and I got better. When you shut down vulnerability, you shut down opportunity to improve.


Whether I like the term or not, I am a non-traditional student. The average age in our small class is mid 20’s, so about 20 years younger than me. I naively underestimated that physical stamina this class requires. An un air-conditioned shop with two gas forges going in Central Texas gets hot; swinging heavy hammers against metal is exhausting; standing for five hours is surprisingly uncomfortable. All of that gives me the opportunity to check my ego. I take breaks, sit and drink plenty of water. It’s given me a better understanding of how to differentiate between weakness and simply taking care of myself.


Comparing my work to the examples made by the instructor was initially incredibly frustrating. He can make something incredible in 15 minutes with what appears to be very little effort. In contrast I can spend 4 hours trying to replicate his piece and end up with some mangled piece of steel. I don’t tend to have issues with negative self-talk but it was easy to slip into critical thinking at the end of some of those initial classes. At some point I began to get perspective. The instructor had over 20 years of experience as a blacksmith and he teaches it full time; I just started. There is no reason why I should be able to produce something comparable to what he produces. Keeping the perspective that I’m doing my best and allowing my work to be good enough helps make the class much more enjoyable.


Taking this class has made my world a little bigger. I’ve met new people, engaged in new activities and developed an interest in something that I previously had no experience with. My friends and family ask me about it. I spent five minutes talking to the home depot cashier about it while trying to buy a handle for the hammer I made. As physically tiring as it is, I leave class mentally and emotionally energized. Doing new things that engage as many senses as possible increases cognitive connections and leads to a richer life experience.

Do I think every middle age empty nester should go back to school? I kind of do. But the take-a-ways from my experience are much broader than that. I’ve been reminded in a very tangible way of the importance of practicing vulnerability and humility and of the richness that perspective taking and openness can bring into day to day living. Go challenge yourself; take a risk; learn something new; struggle; fail. It will be ok. It will be better than ok. You’ll end up with more depth, more compassion for yourself and others and more connection to the world around you.

About Michael Hilgers, M.MFT

I’m a Licensed Professional Counselor working remotely with clients around the world. I believe that everyone has the potential to change; to create new paths, to go in new directions. Life is hard. Counseling can help.

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