Feb 10

The Funny Thing About Normal

by Hannah Holt »


The other night I ate dinner with a group of professional soccer players. Over grilled vegetables, one of them made the comment, “I’m not that athletic.”

Me: Um, you’re a professional soccer player. What do you mean you aren’t athletic?

Her: Well, for a professional soccer player…

Just to be clear here, this individual is a starter for one of the nation’s top teams. If she’s not athletic, I’m a pudding pop.

This exchange reminded me of an interview I heard on NPR with classical pianist Emanual Ax. Of his schooling, he said, “I was just a normal piano student.”

Peter Sagal: Normal piano students tend not to end up at Julliard has been my experience.

Emanual Ax: Well, maybe normal for Julliard.

Normal is a tricky beast. It’s a lie but also a gift. The lie part says, “You’re not that good, sucker.” But there’s a biological reason for self doubt and deprecation. That’s gift part: sensory gating.

Char sleep study 1

{My daughter in a University of Colorado study on infant sensory gating.}

Gating is how the brain filters out unimportant information. It’s why people living next to hospitals will eventually learn to sleep through ambulance sirens. But it’s also why professional pianists aren’t continually thinking, “OMG! I’m playing Rachmaninoff! Do you see my fingers? They’re like lightning!”

When the brain receives a signal it makes a snap decision: Is this new? Is it important? Is it dangerous? If the answer is no, the signal probably won’t get our conscious attention. Gating is good. People who can’t gate have trouble tuning out unimportant sights and/or sounds in their environment. They might also have trouble distinguishing between thoughts and reality.

Just imagine if every time we drove down the freeway all we could think was, “Holy! I’m sitting in a chair and travelling 65 MPH!!!”

It’d be impossible to drive. So the brain filters out the miracle of modern travel for most of us, and suddenly we are home without any recollection of driving there.

But sometimes gating goes too far. There is no joy in driving life on autopilot.

Lately, I’ve been working through a creative funk. Trying to break out of normal, I’ve been testing boundaries and trying new things. I wrote a novel in a new genre. I also started several new art projects using only canvas and embossing powder.

I wish I could say the results of these new projects are extraordinary. They aren’t. My new manuscript kinda stinks. And the embossing projects have been a lot of trial and error (mostly error).


Every time I work, I pick up new ways to improve. Expanding normal is a messy process. Sometimes I feel like I’m flying down the highway at 65 miles and hour. Other times, I’m stuck on the side of the road with a flat. However, I hope to come out of this funk with a stronger and bigger creative tool set.

The line between ordinary and extraordinary might not be as far as it feels.

After all, if my professional soccer player friend feels “not athletic” and Emanual Ax considers himself “average,” maybe all of us are unknowingly living über cool lives. Maybe the only thing standing in the way of us and this alternate universe of awesome is opening the gates and trying something new.

Extra ordinary

  1. Erin

    Great thoughts! Thanks for sharing. I’m in a funk too, and need a push to get out.

    • Hannah Holt

      You’ll get through it! You are so great about providing really high quality resources on your blog. On the other side of this funk, I’m sure all kinds of awesome await.

  2. Carrie F

    I had a lack-of-gating moment on a plane the other day. I became a little overwhelmed by the idea that I was sitting in a chair, 29,000 feet above the ground and everyone around me was acting like it was COMPLETELY NORMAL, or even boring!!

    It’s all in your perspective, I guess!

    • Hannah Holt

      Welcome back home! Yes, flying is an exciting experience. The taking off and landing are always the parts where I feel the need to grip the arm rests. Glad you made it back safe. :)