Beginner’s Mind Sucks

Some Notes on Starting from Scratch

When was the last time you were a beginner at something?

For me, it’s been a while. I’ve enjoyed the experience of being not only good at most of the things I did but also so busy doing them that I really didn’t have a lot of time to do anything else. Often when I would delve into things that pushed the edges of my skillset – blues guitar, for example, or computer programming, or sketching – I would be enjoying myself right up until that little voice in my head said “Hey, dude, you gotta pay the rent, and this isn’t going to do that – better get back to what you’re good at.

And then I’d do that, and just accept that I “wasn’t very good” at whatever had momentarily distracted me from my Work That Paid the Bills.

Until, of course, the Work didn’t. Or, at least, not on a stable enough basis, and I realized – about a month or so ago – that I need to find a different Work.

In other words, I have to start over. Just shy of half a century old, and I’m looking at what we personal development types call a “career pivot.”

I’m starting from scratch, in other words, working on being a newbie, on building even the most basic skillset in a career field where there are shining stars and people who create things of such beauty and competence that I could just weep.

Me, I’m not quite at “adequate” yet. I’m a rank beginner.

The Space to Be a Beginner

There’s certainly a level of privilege involved in being able to do this. If I had four small mouths to feed, or an oppressive mortgage, I’d definitely not have the room to be a “beginner” – I’d need to find something that drew on my current skillset in a way that brought in immediate cash. The thing about that kind of work is that it rarely aligns directly with your personal goals and hopes – and that’s ok. That’s part of being an adult, accepting that there are needs and responsibilities beyond yourself.

I talking with some other people who had gone through similar transitions, and noticed a theme: regret. Given the choice between a “safe” career (whatever that means these days) and taking a chance on being bad at something for a while, even the people who took the safe route were wistful about what might have been. They never regret taking the “responsible, mature” route – they simply wished that could have included their dreams as well.

I’m at a point where I have some room to be a beginner…and I’m gratefully taking advantage of that, beginning to train as a graphic recorder – perhaps even, eventually, a graphic facilitator (at that point my expertise in facilitation may dovetail back into the job, but that’s a long way off).

It’s exciting. It’s interesting. It’s even fun, sometimes.

But it’s been a while since I’ve been bad at something. And it’s not a fun place to be.

The Discomfort of Conscious Incompetence

A social worker friend of mine framed things perfectly for me:

When you start something, you’re in a state of “unconscious incompetence.” You’re bad at it, but you don’t care, because you don’t know it – it’s just fun. Then as you learn more about it, you start to understand just where your weaknesses are – and you get into the state of “conscious incompetence” while you develop the skills but you know just how bad you are at them. That’s not a fun place to be.

That’s exactly it. The number of things I need to work on, the separate skillsets from “basics of lettering” to “dynamics of large-group facilitation” is daunting.

In case you’re wondering, there’s two more phases to what she was talking about. There’s the point where you are able to do the skills as long as you’re concentrating – that’s “conscious competence”. And past that is when you no longer have to think about it, you simply are good at a thing – “unconscious competence.” That’s where experts are, and why they often make the worst teachers – they forgot how hard it can be to do things, because it’s no longer hard for them.

Re-learning Humility

I used to think I was pretty humble. Why, I was one of the most humble people I knew, especially within my demographic, because I was so humble that…Oh. Wait.

That’s been the side lesson in this new career path. It’s a crash course not only in accepting that there are things I am not good at but also that the things I need to learn are in spaces where I need to just shut up and listen to people smarter than me. We live in a culture that is pretty much designed so that people who look like me don’t have to be in situations like that. Our mythology – Iron Man, The Last Samurai, Laurence of Arabia, Tim Ferris – is that the True Man will not only learn the skills of the different cultures he visits, but he will excel at them, becoming a leader, and in a fraction of the time that most take to develop mastery.

This is not that story. I’m not going to fill these posts with shortcuts or three-step listicles* or clickbait titles.

But I will be talking about things like Deliberate Practice, and training habits, and the joy of developing better visual representations of abstract concepts. There will also be more than a little about markers, pens, paper, notebooks, and probably a lot of blue tape.

Beginner’s mind sucks. But it also carries with it all the anticipation of a long journey into an exciting and foreign land, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

* except for things that actually take three steps.

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