The Restless Novice

Brass Tack Thinking - The Restless NoviceIf you spend any time on the event circuit, online, or even immersed in discussions around your own industry, you’ll often hear phrases like:

“We need to talk about what’s next.”

“Can we move beyond the basics?”

While it might sound like we’re ready for all of the advanced stuff (which I’d often debate), I think this is a symptom of a more underlying cause. We’re uncomfortable being called beginners.

Being a beginner has a strange, uncomfortable connotation. There’s almost an undercurrent of inadequacy, as though focusing on building blocks means that we’re not capable of thinking bigger, doing something more complex, or understanding nuance.

Being a beginner is associated with a lot of icons of needing help: Training wheels. Swim floaties. Kindergarten and the ABCs. Step stools. The very icons of beginner-hood seem to negate the idea of being self sufficient and capable. And by default, you can only be classified as a beginner if someone is more advanced than you are, which can make you feel as though someone is always looking back over their shoulder at you, wondering when you’ll catch up.

I think there’s beauty in the basics. In fact, you can point to many reasons why they’re absolutely essential. There’s a simple eloquence that resides in fundamentals and one of which I’ve discovered I’m quite enamored. I enjoy the basics. Teaching them, exploring them, understanding them better, explaining them more clearly. Reframing them in ways that make sense to more people. They’re always useful, always necessary if we’re ever to build upon a strong foundation.

Though as many folks pointed out when we discussed this on a bit Twitter, basics are relative. What’s fundamental to me is different than to you. Stuff that I’m comfortable with might terrify someone else. In other words, basics and beginner-hood are in the eyes of the beholder.

As an equestrian, you grow tired of jumping the same paltry fences or getting lectured on keeping your heels down and your seat centered. You want to soar over the big fences while the crowd gasps in wonderment because to you, the paltry fences are the basics. For someone who’s never been on a horse before that context shifts dramatically. For them, the basics might just be not falling off.

But the reality is that wherever we sit, there’s often still restlessness around being a beginner in our own context, and a reticence to be labeled as such.

So what drives that? Is it impatience? Arrogance? How others might perceive us? Discomfort with what we don’t understand that drives an eagerness to move onto something else, if only just to find our footing?

I’m not sure I have an answer to this one, but it’s definitely got me thinking. What’s with our obsession here? Are you comfortable with being a beginner, or with teaching them to others? How do you decide when you’ve mastered the “fundamentals” and when you’re moving on, or can you ever really master them at all?

I’d love you to discuss this with me.

image credit: Richo.Fan

  • Mads

    It's a funny argument to make, because when we argue proficiency, we're at the same time eliminating the possibility that something may come along that blow us and the way we view the world away. In essence we're all beginners – always and forever. Thinking otherwise is making ourselves bigger than who we are.

  • Marjorie Clayman

    This is really resonating with me right now.

    I'm not sure that people may have a “problem” being called a beginner or being new at something. I think it's harder to tell at what level you may be working.

    I can only speak from my own experience.

    I began making a concerted effort to build my social network professionally about 4 months ago. After a slow start, I'm now close to 500 followers on Twitter. Thanks to some very gracious people, I have gotten some great help and some very kind compliments. That starts to not feel like training wheels. That starts to feel like I'm riding a bike up a pretty big incline!

    At heart, I know that I'm still new to the game and that I have a lot to learn. But because sites like Facebook and Twitter are so focused on numbers — number of fans, number of followers, it's easy to doubt your beginner status.

    Maybe I AM brilliant if all of these people are following me!

    Of course, people follow for all kinds of reasons, many of which may involve the hope that you'll follow them back. Following doesn't equate to “hanging on every word.” Having a following doesn't equate to guru status.

    I always refer to myself as a beginner because a) I am and b) I want to be transparent about the fact that I know enough to know that numbers and some nice words aren't enough to make someone an expert. Maybe, though, other folks get a little too tied up in the numbers. If you have 1,500 people following you, do you want to announce that you're still a noob? Maybe not. Maybe that would be humiliating to some at that point. Maybe that's a part of your answer.

  • kelleyrobertson

    I am very patient when working with my clients and helping them learn how new selling skills to because I know that it takes time to learn a new skill.

    Unfortunately, I conveniently forget this concept when learning something new myself. I am VERY impatient and uncomfortable being a beginner. This really stood out for me after deciding to learn how to play the guitar. I figured that I'd be playing a Deep Purple riff in a matter of a few weeks or months so I was somewhat dismayed when after 4 months or practising, I was still trying to figure out the basics. Then I read an article that noted Eric Clapton saying he used to practice up to 16 hours a day! That helped put things into perspective.

    My goal as I get older is to become more comfortable with being a newbie. And it's a challenging goal to say the least.

    Cool post Amber!

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  • cloverdew

    Yes. I am uncomfortable being a beginner in many ways. Right now, that includes my journey into physical fitness and, more specifically, with running. I am frustrated because I *want* to be good at it, but I feel like an idiot because I'm so terrible at such a basic thing – something all humans can do. I realize that it takes time to get good at something, even something our bodies are programmed to do, but I'm impatient. I'm terrified of looking like an idiot. I'm annoyed that my body won't just fall into line with the way my brain wants it to work.

    It's funny because this is not my normal MO. I usually am comfortable being a beginner. I love learning and I love teaching and I think the two go hand in hand. At work, I feel my learning curve has gone from very steep to very shallow and that frustrates me. Perhaps because I feel I'm not showing enough improvement. I loved being the beginner when that meant that the learning curve was steep and new things were thrown at me all the time, but now that things aren't changing so rapidly, I'm bored.

    And I think boredom is at the root of both issues. Bored because I'm not improving as fast as I'd like, both as a beginner and as someone with experience.

  • Ziasami

    To add to what everyone has already said, I think it's really useful to always look at anything you do as if you were a beginner, even if you've logged enough hours and have enough skill to be a “pro.”

    I remember when I began playing guitar 10 years ago, and I had never touched a stringed instrument before. It was so new to me. I explored shapes, patterns, tunings, changing up a standard chord here and there… and nowadays, I know the secrets behind all of my own tricks and I feel like the lack of exploration stifles my creativity in some ways.

    So, not only do I feel comfortable being a beginner, but I *crave* the feeling that comes with being a beginner. Obviously, I'm not going to un-learn everything that I've acquired over the years, but calling myself a “pro” seems to restrict things a little bit. Like I've reached some self-defined finish line. What comes after “pro,” “super duper platinum pro?”

    I believe exploration is key when it comes to using a skill creatively, and the most exploring we do in our learning process happens when we're a beginner. So why not keep that mindset throughout?

  • Lindsay Griffiths

    I'd agree that I'm uncomfortable with being a beginning, but I've been trying to teach myself over the last few years to be more comfortable with the journey and not the end result, with whatever I'm doing. I started up with ceramics again this winter (after taking one class when I was ten), and I had to make myself focus just on what was in front of me and not how far I'd come or where I could go. It actually made my pieces better when I did that than when I was trying to achieve my idea of perfection. That's actually why I'm uncomfortable with being a beginner – I'm a recovering perfectionist, who wants to do everything perfectly. But I'm getting better – it's progress!

  • Scott Hepburn

    I love that you're writing this. How often have you heard the phrase “We really need a Social Media 201 event” uttered? Heck, I've even said it.

    But what exactly is “Social Media 201?”

    I think you're right: Beginner, Intermediate or Advanced is all relative. Relative newbies to a space look up at the “veterans” and see experts. The veterans, though, are never satisfied — always chasing, always aware that there's so much to learn.

    Peace is being comfortable with who you are. You can help a lot more people by acknowledging that you've got a ton of knowledge to share with those who know LESS, rather than trying to catch up to those who know MORE.

  • KatFrench

    Good thoughts. Reminds me of a recent post from Havi Brooks, which is and isn't about yoga:

    It also reminds me of the zen koan about the student who came to the master to learn zen, and the master filled his cup with tea, and then kept pouring as the tea flowed down onto the table. The student needed to empty himself of what he already “knew” to be ready to receive what the master had to give.

    I'm about to exit a space where I've achieved, if not mastery, then at least journeyman status, and move into a place where, despite all my preparations, I'm going to be a novice.

    Pioneers are novices, from a certain perspective.

    As I said–lots to ponder here.

  • Joey Strawn

    I think for me, the tinge that comes from being considered a “beginner” is people looking down on you or your abilities. It's kind of like the Mobius strip job hunters find themselves in when a company hiring entry-level positions won't hire someone because they don't have experience.

    Skill and experience go hand-in-hand a lot of the time, but not all the time. Even though I've done this for a while I always like to keep the mindset of a beginner because when you're in that stage you are eager to learn. You actively search out information. Once someone feels they are “Advanced” they stop learning and start lecturing. It's always important to think of yourself as a student and hunger for ways to increase what you know.

    Let the rest of the world see you how they will….because they will.

  • BobFirestone

    Real experts, people who are known as the best in the world at what they do don't reach that level from doing 5,000 different things 9 times each. They become masters from doing 9 things 5,000 times each.

    Years ago I was watching Tiger Woods practice. Comparing TW's practice session to the way the average golfer practices. The difference is night and day. The average guy is flailing wildly at the ball acting like they are paying by the hour. Practicing this way reinforces the bad habits they are “practicing” to eliminate. TW checks the basics on every swing: grip, stance, alignment, & posture. He would not swing until everything was correct. Repetition of the basics reinforces the right way to do things.

  • Mark Dykeman

    If I can slip in a link, I had a similar post about this topic some time ago:

    Nobody wants to feel inferior, I guess, just like they don't want to start skiing on the bunny hill, or wear a life jacket (or seat belts, for that matter). It probably depends on the individual, but impatience, arrogance, fear of the opinion of others, jealousy, shame and awkwardness are probably the usual motivating suspects.

    Lately I've been experimenting a bit by copying the work of fiction authors in handwriting – literally. Might do the same with some non-fiction writers, too. I don't know exactly where I am in my 10K hours of practice, but every now and then I get an indication that I'm not as far along as I think.

  • Claire Celsi

    Amber, this resonates in my social media consultancy. Some people I talk to want to know everything there is to know about social media without ever lifting a finger to discover it themselves. They get sick about hearing the basics, instead, they want detailed results, case studies, you name it. Yet, they still don't want to get their hands dirty and actually use the tools themselves. I say until people give it at least six months of trying something new every week, they won't be able to follow my “social media 201 and 301″ classes. Great post. Thanks.

  • FrankReed

    Good point.

    We are in an industry that allows people to label themselves in any way they want which then lets them think that they know more than they do.

    If we rush around to get 'beyond the basics' without actually understanding them and mastering them as best we can then we are building our knowledge on a foundation of sand. Any builder will tell you that those things wash away when exposed to a storm. Building on a foundation of stone, though, takes more time and patience but the results are much stronger when the “you know what” hits the fan.

    Thanks for the post.

  • Susan Mazza

    A true sign of mastery is the awareness of just how much you don't know. I don't think you have mastered the fundamentals of anything until you understand them well enough to be able to teach those fundamentals to someone else. That doesn't mean you haven't learned enough to do what you need to do to produce the results you want to produce right now though.

    What gets in the way of being a beginner? We like to look good, sometimes at all costs. When we are a beginner we can't control how we appear to others and we are likely to look clumsy or silly in the process. And in our culture people are revered for their knowledge and expertise. Being the “one who knows” is rewarded and not knowing often makes you “look bad” (or at least provokes the fear that you look bad which feels just as real).

    Our education system also rewards the knowing, but does a poor job of rewarding and appreciating the learning process. My 10 year old comes home with her report card proud of her grades, but completely disconnected from any sense of the joy of learning or what she learned. In fact she now sees learning as “work”. As a parent it is really hard to help her get past that context and connect with the joy and exhilaration of learning. It is frustrating to see the resistance to being a beginner already brewing.

  • Jack Smith

    Great article Amber. I am in a coaching program right now and one of the challenges we often talk about is to be comfortable being a beginner forever as that is the only way to learn new things and develop new skills. If you are not growing, you are decaying which means if you want to continue to grow, you'll always be a beginner at something.

  • Christa M. Miller

    I am a big-picture person who is easily bored and very analytical. I am also a perfectionist. It would be easy to say I am uncomfortable with being a beginner… but it's also because I know there's more to something than just the basics, and I want to explore all the possibilities. I'm far more interested in the “why,” preferring to believe (as the old adage goes), “Tell them why, and the how comes naturally.”

    Of course, I also understand that not everyone is as intuitive as that adage would have us believe. Some people don't just naturally connect the dots. My preference at that point is to try to find the teachers, folks I can refer non-intuitives to so I can keep analyzing. But maybe the true test for me is to stretch and figure out how to teach… which in itself can be a form of exploring “what's next.”

  • BobbyRettew

    It was so refreshing to have this post come across my inbox this morning. I have been felling like a “beginner” as you described this week, We want to achieve so many goals, reach new heights, and even become respected in our own fields…but it is good to be reminded we must walk before we run. We must be good at the fundamentals before we jump to the advanced rounds.I also think we should be humbled in our roots, constantly reminded of where we came from and the path that brought us to this point. Sometimes it is a good thing to put the training wheels back on…thanks for this well articulated post. It was refreshing to read. ~BR

  • Cindy Bagwell Chrysler

    Another one out of the ballpark, Amber. I loved reading this. I don't mind being a beginner at all. It means I'm still able to learn something new. There's information out there I don't have yet and I can't wait to get at it. I also love helping others to learn it, too. I still feel like a beginner in so many ways, but people I helped get started in social media, etc. are now speaking at various venues. Does that make me not a beginner anymore? Honestly…who cares? They're soaring and I'm excited to see it. Right now, my learning encompasses mostly my daughter's health issues. I've been reading and learning and asking more questions. This is not something I would choose to be an expert at, but I'm working on it. ;) Time will tell…for all of us.

  • Patrick Garmoe

    Nobody likes to feel like they're a beginner, because it has a negative connotation. Look at the debate over “social media snake oil salesmen.” That phrase is synonymous with the notion that “that guy is a beginner” and therefore shouldn't be listened to. You're in a sense looked down on, if you want to teach some of the “basics” but haven't been on Twitter since it started, so you're a beginner. Obviously it's more prestigious to be the teacher, and not the student. We're all learning, and I always want to be called a student of whatever game I'm playing? But beginner? Not so sure.

  • philotheas_art

    Thanks I enjoyed this. Being comfortable with our skill level albeit beginner is my take away from this post. Beginner compared to what, to who. Like anything else, there is always someone above and below. Being eager and willing, receptive to a better way, now that is a skill on its own.

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  • Heather Rinke

    Great post, Amber.

    I find am typically very patient when teaching others. However, when in the process of learning something new myself, that patience goes right out the window! My desire to learn and the standards I place on myself to be adept at that particular subject outmatch the time that am able to (or choose to?) dedicate to the learning process. Constant reminders about the importance of prioritization, the time and work required keep things in perspective.

    For some, perhaps part of the discomfort with being a 'beginner' could be the perception that in order to see success you need to graduate to a specific level (and out of that beginner role). You have to reach level x before you can <insert achievement here>. Could that measure of success be a factor? Would goal setting (or lack thereof) impact this?

    The concepts of beginner or expert really are quite relative. It's all about how we frame them for ourselves. As mentioned below, we are all beginners in some way or another. It's quite refreshing to be reminded of that with your post and the great comments here.

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  • Hans Hageman

    Part of the problem is arrogance. There is also the desire to impress coupled with the fear that we may be shown up when someone with more “sophistication comes along. A third piece is our culture's obsession with the latest shiny, new object – whether in education, marketing, personal productivity, technology, etc.

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