It is important to let yourself be a beginner. It’s important that I let myself be one, too. But it is really hard.
If you are anything like me, you have a bit of a perfectionist streak, and you want to get everything right and do everything well from the very beginning. Because of this, it is painful for you to make mistakes or to be a novice, with all its awkwardness and clumsiness.
If you are anything like me, you hate the novice stage of learning or trying new things so much, it often makes you want to quit.
In fact, you may regularly compare yourself in your novice stage to people who have been at it for a long time–it being whatever the skill is in which you are a novice.
They seem so skilled and knowledgeable. It feels like that the thing which is so hard for you is effortless for them. And you feel like a failure in comparison.
To make matters worse, there may be people around you who make you feel bad for being a novice or a beginner. People are often weirdly intolerant of the novice stage.
For example, I have a vivid memory of doing my student teaching in Guatemala in a bilingual classroom. I had only been there a month or so when my lead teacher went on a work-related trip for a week and left me completely in charge of her classes.
I was twenty; in a different country; teaching students whose first language was Spanish; handling my own class for the first time. And I had a pretty rough week, as you can imagine.
You can read more about my adventures in Guatemala here:
That Time I Almost Got Stuck on a Volcano
Struggling to gain my footing, I remember asking a veteran teacher for advice. Her sarcastic response was, “Didn’t they teach you about that in your education classes?”
She shamed me for being a novice.
I bet you have had similar experiences in which you were just beginning to learn something. You were trying hard to acquire a new skill. And someone shamed or mocked you for your understandable and necessary mistakes.
These experiences are painful and are part of what can cause us to fear and even hate being a beginner. I sympathize, Friend.
How can we get over this fear?
The other day, I had an insight while, of all things, I was practicing cartwheels.
I used to do cartwheels all the time when I was younger, and I loved them. It’s a skill I don’t want to lose, so I practice them regularly. Sometimes I take photos of my cartwheels because there is something exhilarating about seeing myself mid-cartwheel, upside down, playful and free.
As I was looking at my pictures, I noticed something. The beginning of my cartwheels always look really awkward. My body is twisted; one of my leg is always flailing a bit; I look like I might fall over.
But it’s those first awkward seconds that allow me to connect with the ground; orient myself in space; and launch myself into the air. And once I am airborne there’s a moment where I feel perfectly poised, balanced, and even poetic.
But I couldn’t get the poetry without the awkwardness.
The other day I wrote a poem about it:
Cartwheels at the beginning,
Look different from cartwheels
In the middle,
Something which is important for
Aspiring cartwheelers to remember.
~Shelly P. Johnson 2021
Writing this poem reminded me that there is always a beginning stage in any endeavor. It is necessarily awkward, but its awkwardness lays the ground for future excellence and adventure.
What if instead of thinking of our beginning clumsiness as something to be ashamed of, we thought of it as orientation?
When hikers are on their adventures, they must periodically stop to orient themselves.
They are in a new space, in unfamiliar surroundings. So, they use a compass and map to help locate themselves. In this process, there is always a moment of feeling lost and disoriented–awkward–before they find their direction again.
That’s what it’s like in any new endeavor, whether it’s student teaching in a different country, doing cartwheels, or learning any other skill. We are in a new space, in unfamiliar surroundings. Our novice attempts are the map and compass we use to orient ourselves, find our footing, and continue in a more confident direction.
There’s no shame in orienteering. It is normal and necessary, and it is the prelude to beautiful adventures.
It is good to be a beginner.
And in fact, there may, in some ways, be something superior to being a beginner, compared to being an expert. In one of my favorite books, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki writes the following:
“If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”