The Merriam Webster lists 4 different meanings for overwhelm, two of which I find interesting to describe the overwhelm we might be confronted with as an individual. They are the idea “to overpower in thought or feeling” as well as the meaning “to cover over completely : submerge”, both of which I associate with the intake of information we are subject to nowadays.
A bit of my own story on this: Around the age of 10 I moved from Belgium to Germany, it was an exciting step as it meant that a lot of the context I had been used to changed, the most notable of it being the language. Until then I only had spent some vacation in Germany learning a few words. The beauty of that experience was that it helped to see the move as natural. Our parents tried to make it easy on us, but couldn’t prevent that we had to switch from out mother tongue French to German. Looking back at it, then what we in fact dealt with overwhelm in a natural way as there was no choice. Everyone in our environment was talking German, so we took it on.
I believe that one of the things I learned during that period, was to maximize attention for everything happening and reduce my communication to a max to be able to for example follow classes and find ways to participate in school life. I remember some feelings of frustration like finding it difficult to be understood, but in the end this wasn’t as important and dealing with the situation as well as the impression of overwhelm I associated with feeling lost.
What I’ve kept from this experience is to perceive a lot of details I don’t understand or haven’t figured out yet. I find this uncomfortable but natural. It made me aware of the fact that organizing the observations of thinking, feeling, seeing, smelling and hearing feels like too complicated a task. I thus don’t attend to all of them and usually apply a filter which is for example prioritizing thinking to feeling.
This means, that I’ve a tendency to try to catch as much information as possible and know at the same time I can’t catch it all. It’s a habit I haven’t given up on, as I’ve also been able to see how easy it can be to expand the awareness related to one type of information once we set our mind up to it.
My parents for example regularly reminded me of the fact that I can’t sing and don’t have a sense of rhythm, but well my father still asked for my opinion when he was looking for a new violin. In that period listening to him playing suddenly trained my brain to pay attention and detect differences. I’ve always found this fascinating. Once we’ve defined the target of our attention we can quite easily develop a further understanding of that specific information – if we give it some time. If we give our brain some time to plough through the amount of information we can’t grasp at the beginning until it finds its way. Hearing a piece of music for the 100th time still uncovers new information – if we stay curious and listen in.
This is similar to a lot of learning processes we experience. When I started to learn golf, the swing seemed impossible to grasp, it still is, but the amount of information about stance, body posture, tension, amplitude, distance from the ball or balance I’ve learned has changed my movement while it still takes time until I can sense all this information during execution. The latter is also a moment in which beyond the “information-overwhelm” the “emotion-overwhelm” can step it. I want to do it right and yet it more often than I like doesn’t work out well, this leads to moments in which I’ve to deal with anger, frustration or other feelings overwhelming me and distracting me from actually performing the movement according to the learning.
To me, overwhelm thus now seem to be a natural state – if we let it happen and a manageable state if we accept to set a few things aside and see it as a constant learning experience.
I’ve been lucky to be able to observe that process for a bit more than a year in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. After participating myself I’ve had the great opportunity to be a coach in it since then. Just as it was the case for me, I can nowadays observe how participants love what is happening in the seminar and at the same time struggle to deal with the overwhelm of pleasure, learning and sharing. It takes everyone a bit of time to find their own pace and way to work. As new lessons pop up every second day, inviting participants to share their ideas and learning on the lesson, they have to find solutions to learn the content, to apply it to their own project, to react to the feedback they’ve received as well as give feedback to others – all of which unleash new learning.
It has been humbling to see how many ways participants will find to organize themselves, find the time they can give or take as well as share their work.
Just as I’ve learned along the years to trust that I can somehow deal with the “too much”, participants in The Marketing Seminar quickly start to trust the process, those who make the leap and start writing and sharing are the ones getting the most out of the seminar. And yet, those who only read, who chose the lessons they work on, who only give others feedback or who find their own ways to contribute all get a ton out of the work they do. They’ve made an important decision for themselves: the amount of information they can deal with as well as the emotional involvement they can sustain. One of the things that make this decision difficult, is the generosity among participants, the feedback received, the feeling of being seen. The automatic and beautiful reaction is, that we want to give back.
It’s not as important to do everything to make an experience happen as to decide how much we can get out of that experience and how we can make it happen for us.