To be a beginner

One of the great frustrations of my life has been that I am not immediately perfect at something when I first try it. Maybe you can relate.

  • When I first try a new technique on my hair, like using a curling iron, and it doesn’t go well, so the curling iron goes back in the drawer and I think, “My hair just doesn’t curl.”
  • My first year as a high school teacher. The first semester, I had classes of bright, hard-working, kind students, so I thought, “Wow. Maybe I’m a natural.” And then the second semester, I had classes of students who really needed my help. Their misbehavior and lack of concern for learning were clear cries for a different approach, something more compassionate and scaffolded, but I succumbed to probably every first year teacher’s feeling of burnout. I decided the problem was with them, not me, and there was nothing to be done but tolerate and survive, and furthermore, I was not “born” to teach. I didn’t have the emotional capacity or the behavior management skills to lead classes of students who weren’t already “good” students.
  • Grad school. Pretty much everyone I know had a year (or five) of impostor syndrome. For me, impostor syndrome arose because I was not immediately “good” at being a graduate student in English. I didn’t know the jargon or the fields; I didn’t always see what others seemed to see in the texts. And I made the mistake of assuming everyone else around me did know these things, and moreover, knew them from the start. “Natural” grad students (can you think of anything more terrifying?). Still, I suffered and tried to pretend like I understood what was going on, even though most of the time, my brain was screaming, “MAYDAY! MAYDAY! SHIP IS GOING DOWN.”
  • I was afraid to try a weightlifting class at the gym for several months after joining because I thought, “I can’t lift weights. I’ve never done it before. Everyone is going to know I’m new and don’t know what I’m doing.”

But I’m not this illogical with everything.

  • When I try a new recipe and it doesn’t look anything like the picture, I feel sort of bad. But I take note of each step that I took, and I consider how I might adjust next time I try.
  • When I’m doing yoga and can’t get super deep into a new pose, I don’t beat myself up. I remember that yoga is simply about showing up to my practice (key word there), and wherever I am in a pose on a given day is exactly where I’m supposed to be. It’s not about perfection, but showing up.
  • I know there were points in my childhood (and all of ours) when I didn’t know how to walk or read or ride bikes. But kids keep trying. When a kid doesn’t toddle across the room the first time she tries to stand up, parents don’t just throw up their hands and say, “I guess our kid wasn’t born to walk.” When I was learning to read on my own and I came across words I didn’t know, I didn’t throw the book down and say, “I guess I wasn’t born to read.” I asked my parents. I used a dictionary. I relied on context clues.

Think about things you’re good at now or even just things that come naturally to you, like driving or shaving or frying an egg. Remember when you were learning how to do it? Remember when you weren’t good at it?

What I try to embrace now is beginner’s mind. And how freeing it is to embrace my beginner status and not try to pretend to be an expert–especially if I’m not an expert!

Embracing beginner status feels open. You are eager to admit that you don’t know, and you sense that there are endless possibilities and pathways for inquiry. You see the future as teeming with these possibilities and those who are ahead of you in their learning as bountiful resources from which you can gain wisdom. The future and people who know more stop being sources of anxiety or threats and they become, simply, possibilities.

You know how when you actually get good at something, possibility seems to go away? You kind of know what you like and know how to get from Point A to Point B most efficiently, so you stop experimenting. This has been really apparent in grad school. We’re being trained to be experts in a particular field, and in doing so, a lot of the casual knowledge I had in other fields is slowly draining away to make room for all the knowledge I need to pass my comprehensive exams and call myself a “nineteenth-century Americanist.” Perhaps you’ve felt it in your own job: you found a “thing” that works and rather than continuing to experiment, you stick to it because it’s easier or less time-consuming or makes your boss happy.

Embracing beginner’s mind is a big part of how I have been able to start making little pivots in my life, even though for most of my adolescence, I was sure I’d be settled in a family and a career by the time I was 30. These little pivots have taken me out of unhappiness and into joyful exploration. (And now I’m like, seriously, what is the purpose of life but to love and joyfully explore?)

When you own that you won’t be good at something when you first begin, you’re free to explore. You’re free to be REALLY BAD at first, and you can laugh and say, “Well, I’m just starting out, but I’ll keep trying, and I’ll practice, and some day I’ll be good and I’ll move on to something else.”

This openness and fluidity has actually improved my relationships, my research, my anxiety, and my procrastination. Here are a few ways how:

  • I know that good work happens one step at a time. All I can do is take small steps. There’s no “giant leap for mankind” happening here. A person makes small changes in her diet and works out for 30 minutes a day, and in 3 months she has lost weight and feels energetic. But a person doesn’t go for a run on Day One and come home expecting to have solved all her weight, energy, and body image problems after one run.
  • I live in the present moment, focusing on the task at hand. I don’t obsess over the outcome. I don’t let thoughts of what other people may think about my work cloud my progress.
  • I settle into a space of living with my fear of failure. The fear never fully goes away, but I accept it and move forward anyway. Yes, I might fail. But that is a terrible reason not to keep trying.
  • I live in questions instead of grasping for answers. What if I try this? What if I do it this way? What does this mean? How can I make adjustments? Who can I ask for help? Can I just stand on top of a mountain and scream, “I DON’T KNOW!” I know I won’t be able to see what an outcome looks like a year from now, but I can take a small step in a direction that feels good today. And I can admit that I am a beginner.

One of my favorite quotes on being a beginner comes from my celebrity crush, Ira Glass. In an interview about storytelling (which is on YouTube and Vimeo), he says:

“What nobody tells people who are beginners — and I really wish someone had told this to me . . . is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, and it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.

But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase. They quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it’s normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story.

It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Right? It doesn’t just have to be creative work. It can be anything. When you let your interests guide you, you’re on the right track. I can’t get discouraged if I’m not immediately the best at something that interests me. Just because I sense that one day I might be really good at something but I’m not right now doesn’t mean I’m not supposed to do it. It just means that I’m a beginner. By practicing, by putting in the work, I learn and I grow and I get good. And it might take a good, long while.

I’d also like to quote Todd Henry again, from his book, Louder than Words He says:

“In the mad dash to gain recognition and success, it’s easy to latch on to early victories and squeeze them for all they’re worth, but those who embrace a disciplined, long-arc pursuit of brilliance are the ones who work their way onto a path of unique and valuable contribution….You…have to let your work be messy while you figure out where it’s all leading you.”

Own the mess! Own that anything worth doing well is worth taking time!

Henry also discusses “premature optimization” and warns against it. We should not try to be prodigies at the beginning until “bottlenecks, central purpose, and structure” are “refined.” If you don’t know exactly what it is you want at the beginning, this is good. You don’t want to “inhibit the kind of wandering that is necessary in order to uncover loose, disparate connections and synthesize meaning out of seemingly unrelated ideas.”

And how have I wandered! And how glad I am for that wandering. There’s so much I would have missed out on had I stayed on a neat, linear track.

Henry suggests that once we achieve success, we often become “overly cautious” or “assume a more defensive posture”; we sometimes become “stale” or “predictable.” In my own words, I’ve often thought, “Well, this works for me, so why bother interrogating it?”

So I embrace leaning into discovery. I was listening to episode of Jonathan Fields’ podcast The Good Life Project, in which he interviewed my fave, Liz Gilbert. They were talking about the feeling of finding out you could spend your whole life learning something and practicing it and still never master all of its tenets. Some people react to that idea with fear, anxiety, and shutting down. Others are excited by the prospect of a lifetime of growth and learning. Which do you want to be?

Finally, I will leave you with a quote that I found written in my quote notebook. I do not know where I found it, but hopefully some day I’ll figure it out and I can source it for you. It says:

“Be and become. Never forsake the grace in being because you want to become.”

Own your beginner status.


2 thoughts on “To be a beginner

  1. Someone recently told me about a TED talk discussing this same thought. I couldn’t find it but from what they told me the speaker discusses how we essentially suck at success. We never allow ourselves to be the role of the “learner” and make mistakes. Instead, we believe we have to climb the ladder without stumbling or making mistakes.
    While looking for the above mentioned TED I did stumble upon this one:

    Interestingly enough, Alain advises you to make sure your idea of success is actually your own and not what society or the media dictates.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for commenting! I love everything Alain de Botton writes and says. You must check out Krista Tippet’s interview with him about his work on relationships and love:
      It was a game changer for me.

      And I love the thought of allowing ourselves to be learners and make mistakes and detach from the masses. This is something I’m still working on!


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