Facing Your Fears: Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks

by Grace Bonney

For the past few weeks, we’ve been sharing personal essays about facing our fears. Max finally got behind the wheel and is learning to drive and Amy is learning a new language step by step. I haven’t jumped out of any planes or learned an entirely new skill lately, so I found myself struggling to think of a nice neat example of how I’d faced a fear recently. I was sitting on my couch trying to think of something when I found myself  back on Instagram, falling into feed after feed of pictures, which turned into 20 new emails to Amy and myself for home tours to request, designers to interview and possible collaborators to contact. Then it hit me: I’d faced a fear I hadn’t even realized I was facing. After months of feeling out of touch with and behind on the new technology in our community, I’d found a way to embrace and have fun with something I once found terrifying.

I spent most of 2013 being frustrated with the changes in the online world and the new technology and reading behavior that came with it. Instead of being excited, I curled up into a little ball and sulked on the couch like a teenager. I’m not proud of how I let something that scared me turn me into a grump, but I understand it better now. I felt old, out of touch and needed a moment to heal wounds that felt a little too vulnerable to admit or share openly. But then, thankfully, something changed with the new year: I felt curious again. Without thinking about it too much, I started to run toward that curiosity. It started with experiments on Instagram and was followed by questions for Max about how to use Adobe Premier and other tools I’d felt too behind on to try. Then the next thing I knew, instead of asking someone else to build/create/photograph something for me, I was trying it myself. For the first time in a long time, I let my guard down, stopped worrying about making a mistake and let myself be curious, excited and have fun trying something new.

Click through for the full post after the jump..

It can be weird to be work in an industry where being 32 makes you feel old. But that’s how I feel sometimes. Every now and then Max will mention an exciting new site, app or software that he loves and I will realize I have not only no idea what that tool is, but no idea how to use it. In those moments I realize I must look like my grandparents did when I tried to explain my blog to them- like I was describing some completely alien thing that makes no sense in their world. In those moments I always try to keep my face steady and stop it from making that hideous Say Whaat? sneer that I tend to have when I feel clueless. That clueless feeling was mostly about feeling out of touch and behind in an industry where, not too long ago, I felt like I was in the thick of the pack learning new things and making quick changes with the best of them. But sometimes when life and work takes over, you don’t have as much time as you’d like to stay on top of new things. The good news is that you can always go back and learn.

When I started Design*Sponge I was 23 and everyone would make comments about how young I was. I hated those comments at first (my overly sensitive mind took them as criticism), but at some point I realized it was a good thing to be young, eager, new and always learning. I’d lost that eagerness and curiosity about learning and at the end of last year I realized it was a good thing to get that back. Not just because it was important for my job, but because it was important for me as person.

To stay curious is to stay committed to learning. And if you’re not learning something new, you’re staying in the same place. And while I don’t know everything I want from my life and business yet, I do know that I want to always be learning. Whether I’m learning a new technology, a new piece of photo editing software or just a new trend that’s happening in my community, I want to stay committed to always keeping an open mind. Because an open mind is one that doesn’t miss out on something wonderful just because it’s hidden behind a door that might be hard or scary to open.

With this new understanding about embracing technology and keeping an open mind comes a heightened sense of appreciation about what comes with being “older” in an industry, too.  With age comes experience, understanding, confidence and trust- wonderful things that I would never exchange for being a bit younger or ahead of learning curves. And I’m so glad that, despite taking a bit of time to get here, I’ve found a way to embrace both sides of the equation. I’m happy to have found new ways to stay inspired and excited about my work through new technology and grateful to have discovered a new appreciation for the skills that come with the time I’ve put into my work and business so far. So here’s to learning new things and staying curious and inspired at any age! There is always room to grow and keep an open mind. xo, grace

Suggested For You


  • Well said! I have experienced similar feelings of being “left behind” with all that’s changing with technology and where my personal professional path is taking me. I started worrying that it was too late for me to make a change or head in a new direction, but I’m finally starting to realize it’s never too late to be the person you want to be. We can do it!

  • I love that you are flexible to change! I am an art teacher at the middle school level and constantly feeling old, because my students that I work with are so young (I am 31) but I learn a whole heck of a lot from them!

  • Hi Grace, Hooray for saving yes “to learning new things and staying curious and inspired at any age!” And thank you for the curiosity, creativity, and just plain good times you have unleashed with your inspiring Instagram challenges! And, by the way, you will really, really chuckle some day to think you thought 32 was any kind of old!

  • Dear Grace, I am truly happy to see you have regained your curiousity and are finding your footing (joyfully) in this brave new world. I’m 35 and after spending the last few years being pregnant and raising wee ones, I have been feeling seriously out of touch myself.

    My mom strongly believes in continuing to learn and keep an open mind to change no matter what our age–she and my father have moved cross-country and have recently started learning ASL in their 60’s. She is a great inspiration to me to let go and jump in to new things even though they may be out of my comfort zone. Carla

  • From the grand age of 41, 32 doesn’t seem old at all! I agree with what you are saying. When we stay curious and eager to learn, age is just a number. Good luck!

  • Yes! And I completely agree with Carla also. My mom is 92 and is game to try new things. She’s always willing to take an art workshop and learn something new or go to some weird art opening in North Beach. She doesn’t hear so well and has sometimes nodded at waiters, unknowingly ordering a giant cocktail! I believe that staying curious is one of the keys to longevity. Now I’d better go and figure out that Instagram-thingie!

  • I think that at any age we can feel old, young or simply foolish. Facing fears transcends age per se and actually my word for 2014 is ‘fearless’. A hard one to get to grips with but every day I make some sort of baby steps.

    Turning 50 this summer and being an eternal student I believe that curiosity, an open mind and authenticity will keep us young for a very long time (and make sure we have fun on the way). Talking about that, I also believe that fear is often present because people aren’t satisfied with this or that and where they are at. It’s not the Destination, it’s the Journey we must focus on. That’s the pearl of life!

    Nice essay Grace.

  • Thought – provoking. An interesting aspect of Instagram is how it merges and enhances the creative process with the finished product – in so many beautiful artisans’ feeds. I think that curiosity is a wonderful way of approaching life- it opens so many doors to new experience.

  • Oh dear, you hit a lot of nails on the head with this post, Grace. Most of my life I’ve felt like I was running to catch up to everyone else–late bloomer–and too many years of living as I SHOULD and not living as I COULD. I was 60 when I started painting, drawing, etc. and have so many, many ideas in my head of what I could do next and get intimidated by the many oh-so-talented young people working, creating and selling their beautiful artistic crafts–how could I ever stand beside them? And technology? Had to laugh at that one too. Sheesh!
    But you are right on about the keeping curious part. I had so much curiosity and not much fear in my teens. It’s been a joyful experience connecting back to those feelings, often too tentatively, but nonetheless determinedly.
    Thanks, all of you for facing your fears and walking through them, it’s new inspiration for me!

  • Well, I still think of you as young. I’m 37. And yes, learning new things keeps us young, and keeps our brains from stifling. When I think of my grandparents, the one that lasted the longest, until 93, my grandma tried new forms of art right up until the end. Her brain was all there even when her body couldn’t keep up. It was all about learning new things. I aspire to be young at heart and brain until the very end.

  • One thing I’ve learned: Stay humble and learn from everything and from everyone. Young, old, extra old, kids, younger kids… There’s a Chinese proverb (sorry for sounding Confucius-ish, but I love my Chinese proverbs) that says that for every mountain there will always be a greater and bigger mountain. Nevermind the silliness of me trying to plug-in a wise saying, I guess the important thing is to stay motivated and continue to reach for the best of of yourself.

    I love that you share your thoughts about it here. Thanks.

    :) and Oh c’mon, 30’s are the NEW 20’s!

  • I’m 32 as well and sometimes I feel old too. It doesn’t help that my husband is just shy of a year younger — he reminds me! You are right though, keeping curious will help keep us young. I am working hard to build my brand + often feel behind if I compare myself to others around me, but I am eager to learn everything I can and just enjoy the vast amount of information and inspiration that is so readily at our fingertips. It’s pretty extraordinary! Thanks for your post — I love reading personal pieces like this. Very encouraging!

  • I’m LOVING these thoughtful posts of 2014. You all are doing such a fabulous job of having meaningful conversations about life as it intersects with design.

    P.S. Of course you love forever learning– you’re a design SPONGE!

  • Hi kids, At sixty I took a buyout from my job as an Engineering Exec and went back to school to study Graphic Design. I now have a small business that is growing publishing materials that help people think differently. Who inspired me. Seth Godin and Art Pressfield. Both of them teach you to find that voice of resistance that lives inside your head and defeat it! This blog is also an inspiration! Thank you for what you do!

  • Hey Grace,
    Awesome post, as usual, and thank you for sharing your fears with us. It’s refreshing and encouraging to know that people who your admire, even if just through the internet, are real people with real emotions. I have a similar fear, as a young woman wood worker in an industry dominated by men with big shops and carpentry skills and I with a little shop and a fine arts degree. It’s important to assess the source of fear and anxiety and to take the steps necessary to work towards conquering it. But to also celebrate the knowledge, insight, perspective and experiences you bring to your field and industry as well.
    Thanks again for sharing!

  • Beautifully written! As a 59 year old woman, I have discovered throughout my life that when I look back, compare, I feel old. When I look forward and drop the fear, I still feel young!

  • Such a lovely post!! You have refreshing personal voice that really comes through, and I know speaks to so many people!! I always love reading your musings on creativity and the changing climate we live in. I think so many of us experience the same things, but don’t even know how to process it at times, let alone shed some light in a way that makes us all feel connected. You are doing something really special right now, and I love it. Thank you!

  • i feel you sister. and i love seeing you new things, like the little slideshows into artist’s worlds, shops and such. excited to see what else you guys do! x

  • WOW. I had no clue how timely this post would be… Thank you so very much for your vulnerability in sharing. As technology changes so rapidly, I somehow find myself surrounded by a creative community that is able to keep up without much effort. Whether it’s in coding, photography, design, or new apps, I completely relate! It’s so encouraging to hear this kind of honesty from someone who so many others would see as having “arrived” in the blogosphere. You are a breath of fresh air.

  • So much to admire and learn from this post – thankyou for your honesty. As a 52 year old with a fledgling blog/website I feel positively neanderthal, never mind old, and permanently intimidated and out of my comfort zone in so many areas … So it was so reassuring to read of your own insecurities – you, as someone I think of as so totally tuned in to new technology. You’ve given me heart, and just a little bit more courage to keep on learning and facing those demons.

  • I’ve really enjoyed how you have been sharing this journey of curiosity and discovery both here and on your podcast. I recently had a shake up with my own creative pursuits where I realized I needed to make some new things with completely new materials- it’s been exciting and scary at the same time to embrace the curiosity and possible failure instead of just containing to make the same things I’ve been making and sharing with the world.
    Thanks for sharing the vulnerable parts of learning and growing instead of just the highlights!

  • I am 60 this year and the best advice I have received to keep me current ….”Mom, we are going to the future and we want you to come with us!” From my two adult children who teach me everything. I am blessed and ask a million questions to help run my on line antique/vintage jewelry business. I learn something everyday. Thank you so much for this post!

  • I still remember when I have visited my friend many years ago at her granmother’s house – on the table I saw a coursebook for Latin and another coursebook from some area of physics (I don’t remember which). Her grandmother was learning it just out of curiosity (she was about 70-75 years old then and already retired). I really hope I’ll have this curiosity being 70 years old…