Lifestyle Literacy

My colleague, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn uses the phrase “lifestyle literacy” when he talks about inspiring people to take better care of themselves. Wow! Lifestyle literacy! I like that. I especially like the fact that this makes it into a project that gives you the opportunity to improve.

Literacy, like reading, is something you can learn. There are other kinds of literacy, too, like cultural, environmental, geographic, academic, language, financial, music, technical, athletic/kinesthetic, computer, and emotional, to name a few. Naturally, we tend to gravitate toward ones for which we have an affinity, which makes sense. It feels good to succeed. We like to imagine that the best kid on the baseball team is a “natural” even though he practices throwing for half an hour with his dad every single night after dinner. But to call him a natural doesn’t tell the whole story. He has a goal, and he has support. In this way, good gets better, and better becomes best.

A tiny sign hangs by the piano in my house: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. —Aristotle 

But what about the kinds of literacy that don’t come naturally? What if your parents discover that the reason you are struggling in school is that you have a lot of difficulty matching sounds to symbols, which makes it impossible to read like the rest of your classmates? What if your music teacher told you to mouth the words because you never could sing on key? Or maybe you were always the last kid picked by the team captains in gym or at recess. These are common problems with real solutions. By breaking down tasks into small, explicit steps, people can sometimes develop tools to learn what might otherwise be an insurmountable task.

Children with dyslexia are making enormous strides with “Wilson-based” programs, a kind of reading instruction that assumes no intuitive leaps and provides concrete instruction for each and every possible vowel sound, consonant, and combination that a student might encounter. Who knew that there are actually three different kinds of the letter “r” in English?

A close friend of mine from a musical family used to consider himself tone deaf, and the way he sang certainly provided ample evidence of the fact. At some point, though, he got tired of his inability to sing along with the radio, and he got himself a teacher to sing tones into his ear so he might learn to match pitches. She taught him about musical intervals, and she used nursery rhymes to help him understand. With impressive perseverance, he actually learned to sing along. This is a true story.

In my own case, after many years of being a mediocre dancer (at best), I was convinced to step out of my comfort zone and sign up for a Jazzercise class. The relative simplicity of the steps, coupled with repetition, repetition, and more repetition, flipped some kind of switch in my brain and, after a time, I found myself experimenting with new steps, relaxing, enjoying myself, and, generally, dancing with abandon. I never thought I’d say it, but I can dance now.

Of course my friend will never sing like Andrea Bocelli. And I will never dance like Alvin Ailey. But that’s not the point. The point is that we developed our skills to a serviceable degree, one that meets our own needs, whether emotional, or physical, or both. Not only is dancing good for me, but it makes me happy, and that’s probably the best endorsement I could offer.

Lifestyle literacy means that there is hope for all of us, including people who don’t come by it naturally. Remember that perfection is the enemy of progress. The goal, at least initially, is to adjust your choices just enough to be healthier tomorrow than  today. It’s okay if you don’t train like Jack LaLanne, because that’s not your goal. Your goal is to train like you. Most importantly, if it doesn’t come “naturally,” you can learn lifestyle literacy. You can and will get better at it, and there are people out there to help. 

I know plenty of people who have dedicated their careers to teaching others how to stay out of the aisles at the grocery store, increase their activity levels, relax more, sleep better, and quit smoking. If you need their help, you can find those people, too.

One thought on “Lifestyle Literacy

  1. This message is very uplifting and hopeful. Unfortunately, the advice and theory does not take into account the latest research about executing what one has learned. Case in point is the information contained in an article in a past posting on POLITICO.COM which explains how genetics and other factors influence our inability to control our urges, including our eating habits and addictions or splurges.

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