Resilience, Self-compassion

Let Yourself be a Beginner

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.”

When we are a beginner, we are open to anything and have not developed rigid concepts of how things should be. So perhaps, there is an original expertise in beginner’s mind, one that we should continue to practice, even when we move out of the novice stage.

Today, I hope you learn new things; allow yourself feel a little awkward and clumsy; and use these feelings to orient you in your next steps. I’m so excited for you and all the adventures you will have.

Let yourself be a beginner.


If you enjoyed this post, please consider sharing on social media. 

To read more about this benefit of letting ourselves be awkward and make mistakes, you might like this book: Brene Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

You might also like this post:
Do You Struggle with Perfectionism?

6 thoughts on “Let Yourself be a Beginner”

  1. I loved this Shelly. I made a really exciting decision a couple of weeks ago to embark upon yoga teacher training. At a webinar this week I realised that for one posture, chaturanga, I have been making an alignment mistake and I need to relearn the position of my arms. I felt quite disheartened, but gave practised a bit every day, and already feel stronger. I am also afraid of headstand away from a wall, and I am veering between shying away from it altogether and wondering if I might be able to slowly build strength and confidence. I

    I LOVE your poem. I will recite this when I am falling out of postures!

    1. Ali, I am so excited about your yoga training! You would be an excellent yoga teacher. And I can totally imagine how this process requires you to be a beginner. Especially learning poses like handstands. Kudos to your efforts and thought process. I can’t wait to hear more about it. And I am so happy you liked my poem!

  2. What a perfect thing to read in the first weeks of a new job! I will soak this in. Thank you! I’m intrigued by how shame and others’ discomfort with novice stages is at play. When I read this, it makes me think that my multipotentialite self that is always learning new things is like a superhero! Thanks for the boost!

    1. I am so glad this post helped and so excited about your new job, AnneMarie. And you are so right. Our abilities to learn and actualize all the potentials do make us kind of like superheroes. We have near infinite potential!

  3. Hi Shelly. Your analysis is sound, but not necessarily easy for everyone to put into practice. At periods in my life I’ve deliberately avoided moving too far out of my comfort zone, on the basis that the potential benefits of doing something new would be outweighed by the damage to my self-esteem, self confidence and self belief of things going wrong. I’m not proud of it, but it’s pragmatic. Maybe it’s all about personal attitude to risk…clearly, I’m not a natural risk taker

    1. Hi There, Platypus Man: I definitely sympathize with fear of risk adn fear of damaging our self-esteem. I am too afraid to try karaoke for this very reason! One of the ways I approach this is by categorizing risks in terms of payoff and how much they align with my most authentic goals. Some risks, like singing karaoke, are fairly irrelevant to me achieving my most authentic goals. I tend to avoid these risks because the payoff is not that great. And then there are other risks–like going back to graduate school–are directly aligned with my most authentic goals. I try to take those risks, even though they are hard on my self-esteem sometimes becuase they help me become myself. Thanks, as always for reading and for your comment.

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