Everyone’s familiar with that uncomfortable feeling. The one where you’re starting on a new skill or project you have no experience with. Initially, you have no idea where to even start. Then, you straighten out getting started and have a burst of progress. You seem to be moving forward great. Then…all of the sudden…you realize.
I am bad at this.
Seth Godin calls it the dip. George Leonard calls it the plateau. Psychology calls it conscious incompetence.
Whatever your label for it, that realization is never a fun one. Because it’s usually not just: “I am no good at this.” It usually comes accompanied with thoughts like: “There is so much I don’t know about this,” “It’s going to take forever for me to be any good at this,” and “Obviously I’m not ‘naturally talented’ in this area.”
Said realizations are typically followed by frustration, anger and maybe even a metaphoric “throwing of the controller” (a-la video game rage-quits) whenever further attempts to progress are followed by smaller and smaller returns on effort.
Unfortunately folks, modern life means you have to get used to this feeling. With AI predicted to take over jobs, the rise of the gig economy and “job-hopping,” plus the modern world’s relentless call of “adapt, adapt, adapt,” you’re going to wind up being a beginner more and more often.
Not to mention the same feeling rears its rather scary head with the big life events that nothing but personal experience can teach us how to handle — like changing jobs, moving, being a partner for a significant other or becoming a parent or a care-giver.
The people who we all point to as “successes” in any are of life are comfortable with this feeling of being a beginner. They’ve had plenty of practice. Even Silicon Valley echoes this with the “fail fast, fail often” mantra.
The good news is that you can do the same thing. Let’s talk about how you can get comfortable with being a beginner.
Don’t Think About Being Good At It
The first thing we have to work on when dealing with the “beginner blues” is letting go of the preconceived notions about your ability in regards to a new skill.
If you are getting started with a skill that’s completely outside of your usual skillset, focus on clearing your mind of any expectations of “natural talent.” Sure, some things may come easier to you than others. When they do, that’s great.
But starting out with the belief that you have “natural talent” is going to set you up for frustration when things don’t come easy to you and believing you don’t have natural talent will set back your confidence and make you more prone to giving up when things get tough.
Also try to avoid the belief that your brain is set in a certain pattern (i.e. “I can’t do math because my brain just isn’t wired for it.”) Neuroscience is finding out more and more about neuroplasticiity — and our brains are probably much more flexible than we think.
This is all great for trying to learn a brand new skill. But what about the skills that are related to what we are good at?
Master of One Does Not Make You A Jack of All Trades
Jack of all trades, master of none.
You’ve probably heard the warning about being a generalist a million times. But what about the reverse?
A master of one trade is not a jack of all.
Meaning: the skill set you have right now may not carry over into that new supposedly related skill you’re trying to learn.
Take exercise. You may be the best swimmer in the world. But, if swimming is your only form of exercise, taking things from the pool to the treadmill may not be as easy as you’d think. From an endurance perspective, you may be better off than the average person. But you’re using your muscles and joints in a completely different way.
Your brain works the same way. You recruit totally different pathways for new activities and skills. Even in related disciplines (like fiction writing and non-fiction writing), the skill requirements can be wildly different.
So let go of the mindset of “But I can do X, so Y should be easy!” Treat every new skill like a separate entity while you’re learning. Once you’ve gotten out of the frustration of the beginner’s blues and learned the basics, then you can start to see if certain techniques or ideas from other areas apply. After all, this kind of combination is the basis of creative thinking. But you need a solid foundation first.
Great, we’ve got the mindset down. But does that really help with our comfort level as a beginner?
Not exactly. There’s only one thing that can help here.
Practice Being a Beginner
To really become comfortable with being a beginner, you have to put yourself in situations that you are a complete beginner.
Try new things. And then try, try again.
Constantly reacquainting yourself with the sensation of “I am awful at this” will ease you away from feeling like that sensation is a threat and into realizing: “Hey, this happens every time I try something new. It’s not so bad.”
It also provides irrefutable evidence when you have other areas you’ve conquered the beginner’s blues in. When your brain thinks “I am terrible at this and I’m never going to get any better,” you simply need to remind yourself: I thought the same thing when I tried to do A. It’s going to be the same thing with B.
I call this your “personal incompetence tolerance.” If you’re tolerant of your inability to do something, you’ll be able to learn better. You won’t feel as frustrated (letting go of “I should be able to do this right!”) and you’ll be more open when someone more experienced in the area corrects you (because if you know you don’t know what you’re doing, you know you’re likely doing something wrong).
That personal incompetence tolerance will also help you progress beyond being a beginner if you’re seeking “mastery” of a skill. Most of us quit because we’re faced with a plateau or dip that we can’t seem to get past. But if we can accept that plateau without beating ourselves up over being there, we can progress from beginner skills to intermediate ones and then on to advanced tactics.
Extra Resources for Getting Comfortable with Being a Beginner
If you’re looking for other resources to expand your “beginner zone” comfort, I highly suggest the following resources that helped shape my attitude with being a beginner:
- Mindshift: Great course from Coursera on the flexibility of the human brain. Incredibly helpful if you’re fighting with feeling like your brain is “stuck” being a certain way.
- Learning How To Learn: From the same folks who brought you Mindshift, this is a fantastic deep dive into how we actually learn on Coursera.
- Mastery, George Leonard: This book explores learning a new skill in depth and the mindset needed to pursue “mastery” of a skill.
- The Dip, Seth Godin: A to-the-point discussion of the plateau anyone is faced with when learning new skills. Also a great guide on knowing when to stick with something or when to step away.
- The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle: Various tips and tricks to make your learning easier, including a discussion of deliberate practice.
- How to Be Everything, Emilie Wapnick: This book is more directed at polymaths (or multipotentialites, renaissance people — whatever term you prefer). But, as Wapnick points out, polymaths are great at being beginners because they’ve done it over and over again. Regardless of your polymath status, it’s a worthwhile read.
So, with all of this in mind…where will you try to be a beginner next?