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The Beginner’s Creed

What exactly does it take to be great at something? Or, at least, really good at it? Nobody wants to be the worst one at anything. Nobody starts something and says, “I want to be awful at this!”  Granted, not everyone has a burning desire to be the best in the world, or even world-class. Many people get into a hobby, or a line of work and just want to be proficient enough to enjoy the process without laboring over the process itself.

So, why is it so frustrating to be a beginner? For one thing, a beginner doesn’t WANT to be a beginner. At least not in skill. Sure, the excitement of a “new” activity is great and we feed off of the newness of it for a while. But, inevitably, the new wears off and we are left with the less than glamorous duty of practicing. For some, the pure enjoyment of the journey is enough and practicing is very Zen. For others, practicing is a frustrating reminder that we are not at the level where we want to be. Practice is designed to build our skills, enhance our focus and ultimately help us learn to be more of whom and what we want to be.

The frustration for a lot of beginners is the fact that the hands or the body can’t do what the mind imagines.  For instance, you take a pottery class and you are going to make your first pot. In your head, you have visions of greatness. You see yourself proudly displaying your “Ming Dynasty” quality piece. But, as you squish the clay in your hands, you realize that the clay is not cooperating the way you imagined it would. It’s not moving in the direction you want- it has a mind of its own. It wants to be a puddle of mud! You poke, you prod- you start over. You sweat, you focus, you try and try and this piece of mud is just that, a pitiful, lumpy, cracked elementary school looking ash tray or bowl that still remembers it was a lump of clay and looks like it’s going to revert back at any moment.

Or, you take a dance class at the local gym. You envision yourself moving like Fred and Ginger, gracefully flowing across the floor, perfectly in sync with the music and ready to make your appearance on Dancing with the Stars. Unfortunately, your back doesn’t bend that way, your hamstrings won’t let you kick your leg up higher than your belly button and your hips don’t want to swivel and groove- they want to sit down! Ugh! It stinks to be a beginner! Or does it? If your expectation is perfection, then you will definitely be in for a big disappointment.

Here’s the thing. If you want to be good at anything, you have to make progress. But, progress is subjective. What is easy for you, might be incredibly hard for someone else, and vice versa. Everything comes in its own time. Skill, patience- it takes time. So, how do we make peace with our perfectionist ego and enjoy the journey to becoming an actual master of something?

First, start with a fresh mindset. Everything stems from your attitude. Take away ALL expectations. (Easy to say, hard to do when the ego has its way). When you can go into a project without any expectations, then everything good that happens is a bonus. You don’t have to raise the bar because there isn’t one. You just want to be a participant. A beginner; learning and enjoying the process. Instead of focusing on the outcome, let that go- for now. There will be plenty of time later to critique and expect. For right now, just focus on showing up and being present and in the moment. An amazing thing happens when you are living in the moment. You begin to see, hear and smell things you may have overlooked before, when you were focused on results and not the process.

Next, without the pressure of expectations, you are now free to experiment. I once had an instructor tell me, “the first time you do something, it’s called an accident. If you can repeat it- it’s a technique.”

As an instructor, my goal is to help each of my students discover their own potential. We all have potential. We all possess an unlimited amount of potential. The trick is to discover it in the right areas. There can be more than one, for sure. But, we have to be willing to not do something(s) very well until we reach the place where we are actually good, or sometimes, even great at something(s).

The first thing I teach my students, the very first time they step on the mat- no matter their age- is this: This is the safest place to mess up. That’s it. If you are scared to mess up, maybe because you think people will laugh at you or make fun of you or think less of you- whatever the reason, you won’t fully engage and try your best. If, on the other hand, you are assured that no one will embarrass you or make you feel bad for making a mistake, then magically, the pressure is off!

Once a student realizes this, which, is usually after they have made their first mistake, they physically start to relax. Once their body starts to relax, they do much better. I have found that you don’t learn well when you are tense, scared or inhibited.

Let me go back to the pottery example. It doesn’t matter if you’ve ever danced with clay before or not, you can still learn from this example.

I was a new pottery student, excited about making MY first masterpiece. The instructor told us about his experience in college. There were two groups, with different professors. One professor told his class that they would not be graded on how many pots they made throughout the semester. They would only be graded on the quality of one pot. Their entire semester’s grad would be on the quality of one piece. The other class was told by their professor that the quality of the work they produced would not be a factor in their grade at all. Rather, they would be graded on the sheer number of pots they produced by the end of the semester. The more pots they made, the higher the grade.

Which group would you predict would have the best skillsets at the end of the semester? If you picked the first group, you’d be wrong. Actually, it was the second group that ended up with far superior skills. While the first group was laboring over one single piece, focusing on details and trying to bring about perfection, the second group was free to make the ugliest pots they could turn out, without a care for the quality of the work. Since the fear of failure in that sense was removed, they were free to play. By the end of the semester, the second group had turned out so many pots that they had actually developed skills along the way and didn’t even realize it! Their pots were much more stable, much more lively and much better overall than the first groups. Their focus was different from the start and, in turn, their results were far better.

Whatever mindset we take into a project or an activity will prevail throughout the journey. So, the next time you decide to try your hand at something new, or even take a new approach to something you’ve been struggling with, try first removing expectations- from yourself, from the results, from the experience itself.

Next, remind yourself that you have to be willing to be bad at something for as long as it takes. Eventually, it’s going to get easier and you are going to get better. It’s the law.

Finally, try and be present and in the moment and just….play. Do it for the sheer enjoyment of doing it- whatever “it” is. Playing a musical instrument, painting, drawing, swimming, whatever it is- just enjoy the process. Stop comparing. Comparing yourself to someone else who started the same time you did, or after you did will do you no good whatsoever.

Every Master was once a beginner. The definition of a black belt is simply this- A white belt who never gave up.

The benefits of being a beginner at something are invaluable and available throughout our entire lives. As long as we are breathing, we should be learning. So, go out and be a beginner again. And again. And again. You might just surprise yourself at how many things you really can do. It’s never too late.

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