New Report from Pew Says that Half of Americans Are Only Occasional Users of Modern ICT
Link Love

How to Be A Beginner

Part of learning and growing, I think, is getting comfortable with being a beginner.  Realistically, as quickly as things change anymore, we're always a beginner at something. As soon as we think we've mastered one thing, there will be five more skills we need to learn just to keep up. If we aren't able to accept this, we'll be in big trouble.

I've been thinking about this a lot today. First I read Tom Haskin's post on how to be professionally stagnant. This line, in particular spoke to me:

"Concerted efforts must be made to maintain your own pride, confidence and comfort zone."

Yes, focusing on pride, confidence and our comfort zones leaves us unable to learn new things.

Then I saw Christy Tucker's post on blogging and perfectionism. She says:

Learning more is one of my main goals for blogging, and I don't think I can do that as effectively if I try to wait until my ideas are perfect before I post. This isn't really the forum for my most polished ideas; it should be a place for me to reflect as I'm going along, in whatever stage those thoughts are. Heck, if Will Richardson can admit that he was stuck, I figure I'€™m entitled to not always know quite what I want to write.

Something I struggle with, wanting to be polished in my presentation. But at what cost?

Finally, I came across a series of videos by Ira Glass of This American Life. In this one, he starts out talking about how to find great stories. But then he ends up talking about the need to fail and to abandon the inevitable "crap" that's produced in your search for something really good.

And then in this one, his excellent advice for beginners--recognize that in the beginning, there will be a huge gap between your expectations for the quality of your work and your actual ability to do it. Some people give up too soon. You have to stick with it to get past that point on your way to being really good.

So all of this floating in my brain got me thinking that for me to be a good learner, I need to be a better beginner. What would that look like, though?

  • Being willing to BE a beginner is crucial.
  • I need to examine my own mental models and how I approach situations and experiences.
  • Related to this, I need to develop "beginner's mind."  This quote says it all:"In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert's there are few." - Shunryo Suzuki-Roshi
  • Accept the gap between where I want to be and my current skill level and keep working past that point, rather than giving up.
  • Create a large volume of work (practice, practice, practice) so that I keep creating new opportunities to make mistakes and weed out the crap. Artists know that you have to produce a lot of bad work in order to get past it to the good stuff.
  • Get good at failing. Ira Glass says in the first video that if you're not failing, then you're not creating enough opportunities to get lucky and hit the jackpot on quality. This has been true in my life--back to the idea of producing bad work to get to the good.
  • Be willing to fail publicly. This is the hardest one for me. I prefer to fail quietly, behind the scenes, not in front of an audience. But you don't get feedback when you always fail alone, so sometimes you have to be willing to take a risk where people can see you.
  • Be willing to look foolish. Children are seldom afraid to learn new things until we teach them that they should be afraid of looking "stupid." We don't mean to, but it happens. We transmit our adult embarrassment to them and it goes from there. I have to be willing to seem incompetent.

What are other ways to be a good beginner?


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

This is an interesting context for what I wrote; thank you for adding some more perspective. I am with you on it being hard to fail publicly. I like the idea of "failing forward fast," as some have put it, and it works for me quite well when my failures are relatively self-contained. But it's hard to deliberately go about exposing my doubts and shortcomings.

Several of your points lead to the idea of being more child-like; kids have the courage to just go out and try things without being worried about what people will think. I think that the sense of curiosity and wonder that kids often have is something worth cultivating as an adult; I see that as one aspect of the "beginner's mind."

I have a question though: Do you think polished ideas and polished presentation necessarily go hand in hand? When I wrote the section you quoted, I believe I was thinking about the fully-formed ideas, ideas where I've already completed the whole process of testing it out and getting rid of the crap. I wonder if we can still have good presentation of our ideas, but present them mid-process and as we're working them out. Can we still be clear in our communication, focusing on our process perhaps rather than our conclusion?

Hmm. . . you raise an interesting question, Christy. And you've exposed one of my own mental models. I think that when I think about myself making a polished presentation, I tend to think that I must have worked everything through to conclusion. In other words, I must have an inherent belief that if I'm in "mid-process" in presenting ideas, they are by definition unpolished. I don't know that that's an accurate way of thinking about it, at all. It just seems to be my mental bias.

Now that you've challenged me a little on it, I have to say that I think that we can definitely present mid-process thinking in a cogent, polished way. I also think that you're right that in some ways, focusing on the thinking process in that writing would be helpful--more metacognitive, examining how we're getting to whatever conclusions we think we're headed toward.

I also agree with you that in many ways I'm saying that we need to be more child-like in our learning. I personally think that as human beings we are natural learners and that through our schools and other institutions, we essentially kill the learner in most people. We need Montessori companies or something. :-)

"Montessori companies": I love it! I totally agree with you that our schools and businesses often discourage questioning and lifelong learning. One of my former managers told me I was no longer allowed to start sentences with the phrase "I think"; she really wanted an employee she could control and who would not be seen publicly having independent ideas. The really sad thing is that she's a VP in an education company--how can you support a company mission of helping people learn their whole lives but expect your subordinates to be unquestioning drones?

Ah well, enough whining about that--I left that job and found one where I am appreciated for my independent thoughts!

As for blogging to learn, I think you're right; focusing on the metacognition could be the way to go. It would let us turn down false paths and make our mistakes, but still present something that is coherent for others to read and share in our learning. It sounds great--now I just need to figure out how to actually do it!

Your exhortation to "[a]ccept the gap between where I want to be and my current skill level..." can be a tremendously large hurdle. It reminded me of my piano teacher, who told me that adult beginners almost never make it. Failing publicly wasn't an issue (one doesn't perform until much later) but they couldn't accept the gap between the music they heard in everyday life and their fingers' ability to produce it.

His approach: give one lesson at the keyboard to any newcomer, so they could build up the excitement and interest. The second lesson was entirely away from the piano: he just sat them down and explained the coming frustration and (probably) abandonment.

Having an experienced person sit with you and tell you all about the coming experience is very valuable. For any beginner, that interaction would weed out the people who knew they couldn't handle it or it put the dedicated few in the right mind set.

Ted--I think you make a great point. I agree that plugging away when the music we hear is light years away from our ability to create it is an incredibly hard thing. In the second Ira Glass video, he plays a tape of himself doing a story when he'd already been reporting for 8 years. He just rips it to shreds as the work of someone who doesn't have a clue.

I think that as beginners, not only is it helpful to have more advanced people saying, "it's going to be a long hard journey," we also need them to share their own stories of failure and challenge along the way. If nothing else it lets us know that there may be hope after all.

Your last couple of to do's:

"Be willing to fail publicly. This is the hardest one for me. I prefer to fail quietly, behind the scenes, not in front of an audience. But you don't get feedback when you always fail alone, so sometimes you have to be willing to take a risk where people can see you."

"Be willing to look foolish. Children are seldom afraid to learn new things until we teach them that they should be afraid of looking "stupid." We don't mean to, but it happens. We transmit our adult embarrassment to them and it goes from there. I have to be willing to seem incompetent."

reminded me of a time I failed in public:

A few years ago, during a presentation I offered to collaborate with a workshop participant to create an outcome measure. The workshop's goal was to demysitfy collecting data and using data to make decisions. A case study.

My co-presenters said, "No, don't do it. What if you can't help the person?"

My reaction, "Everyone at the conference is in the after-school program business. I have experience. I'm doing it."

The participant wanted to measure imaginative thinking. I had to admit failure to a room full of people who we'd impressed up to this point.

My wordplaying, tough talking former New Yorker side took over and I told the participant, "I'm hating you."

She smiled, but the other faces said, "This is a disaster."

"Come on up here and we'll figure this out. We'll run through some steps to get on the road to creating an outcome indicator for imaginative thinking."

Well, it turned out fine. Better than fine, I didn't show off my expert knowledge. I thought out loud with another person in front of a room full of people. We demonstrated how to think evaluatively.

About a week ago I got a contract from the participant who thought out loud with me. My first client was in the room while we were thinking out loud.

Try putting yourelf out on a limb without so much concern for professionalism. It's likely your expertise will shine. I've found it gets easier with practice. Surprise!


Catherine--thank you so much for sharing your story. I've had similar experiences and they've usually turned out really well, so I'm not sure why I sometimes continue to resist the opportunity to fail. Thanks for reminding me why it's worthwhile to keep putting yourself out there.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been saved. Comments are moderated and will not appear until approved by the author. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Comments are moderated, and will not appear until the author has approved them.

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)