The Fresh Start Effect

Connor Simpkins ’25

At the start of sixth grade, one of my teachers read aloud a picture book called Zen Shorts. The book offers versions of ancient parables. One is the tale of two monks going for a walk. As they walk they encounter a woman who needs help crossing a creek. The older monk carries the woman across the water, but when they get to the other side the woman just walks away without saying thank you. The two monks continue on their way, but the younger monk seems bothered and eventually bursts out in anger about the woman’s rudeness. The older monk says, “I set that woman down hours ago, why are you still carrying her?” 

Even in sixth grade, I understood the teacher’s purpose in sharing the story, it was a lesson in knowing when to let things go. It wasn’t until this year that I had to apply the lesson to myself.

Last fall, I fractured a bone in my leg. The injury impacted my entire swim season. Instead of having the season I had imagined, I was frustrated and isolated while my leg slowly healed. At the start of this new school year, I’ve had to think about how I’m going to shake off the many disappointments that injury caused. 

I’ve decided to embrace a fresh start. 

Research actually supports this idea. Wharton School researcher Katy Milkman has studied what she calls, “The Fresh Start Effect.” According to Dr. Milkman, the human brain divides life into a series of landmarks that are a lot like chapters of a book. It’s at the beginning of these chapters when humans are most motivated to embrace new behaviors; to set down what has happened in the past and focus on what is ahead. “Fresh start” moments can be birthdays, season changes, holidays, and even the start of a new school year.

Let go of what isn’t working and start fresh.

Both the ancient Buddist parable and Dr. Milkman’s research offer the same message: let go of what isn’t working and start fresh. The beginning of the new school year is one of the best times to make a change. Whether that change is trying to get to school ten minutes earlier each day, communicating with teachers when you need help, committing to new study habits, or, like me, letting go of a disappointment, now is the time.

In one way or another, the last few years have been tough on everyone. This is the first September in two years that we arrive at school without pandemic-related limitations. Masks and social distancing are gone, as are many of the worries that accompanied the early days of the pandemic. 

With school feeling more normal than it has in a long time, it’s the perfect time for all of us to take advantage of the “Fresh Start Effect.”