I forgot how to be a beginner.
Or perhaps, more accurately, I thought I was done being a beginner.
It happened right around the time I graduated from college although I didn’t realize it until a few weeks ago. Being a curious and ambitious kid, I grew up looking for challenges. From as early as I can remember anytime something sparked my interest I’d dive right in and see where curiosity and practice would lead. I didn’t overanalyze or assess the challenge because the spark of inspiration was enough incentive to fervently devote myself to the activity until I felt I’d sufficiently mastered it. The satisfaction of accomplishing a goal after investing immense passion and hard work was addicting.
I know how to unicycle because when I was in sixth grade my cousin gave me his old unicycle he hadn’t ridden in years. I spent six days straight practicing until I could ride down my street in one go. It wasn’t necessarily because I wanted to learn to unicycle but rather because I saw the hand-me-down as a challenge and I couldn’t pass up a good challenge.
The thing about jumping into new things is that there is an unavoidable beginners phase. Throughout junior high and high school, I loved that beginning phase because it was tough. It was test of mettle and courage. My sophomore year of high school I got involved in a business competition called DECA. When I joined I was probably about 40 percent proficient at the competition—I was smart, creative and had a basic understanding of business, which gave me a good foundation but I definitely had no idea was I was doing.
It was a really competitive program and, being a competitive person, I had my sights on rising up through the ranks and being one of the dozen or so kids that got to go to the national competition. That motivation kept me working hard, embracing the long hours and tough challenges. With time and practice, my skills increased and by the time I graduated from high school I’d won nationals twice. I started as a beginner at 40 percent and finished my DECA run in the 90-100 zone.
This is a pretty simple formula that everyone at some point or another has presumably followed.
It’s a good formula to follow—being a beginner involves passion and hunger with endless opportunities to grow and learn.
The opposite of a beginner is an expert—a person with knowledge and expertise, a person that isn’t making basic mistakes and struggling to find footing a confidence in a certain skill.
By the time I hit my senior year of college I had left the beginner zone. I wasn’t an expert but, like many seniors, felt like I’d gotten the hang of things. I knew what I needed to know to get a degree and was involved in projects that had started gaining traction. It’s a lot like how I felt when I was a senior in high school—I’d come in at the bottom of the totem pole and worked my way up.
However, there was an important difference between high school and college. In high school I mentally prepared to go back to being the small fish in a big pond—that pond being Michigan State University.
What tripped me up with college graduation was that I forgot that I was going to be a small fish again. I mistakenly took my degree as a symbol of expertise and competence that meant I was done being a beginner. Now that I was a college graduate I felt people expected certain things out of me—especially because of my accomplishments in college.
After traveling for year I accepted my first real job and looked forward to moving to San Francisco to start the next chapter. That was nine months ago and I can easily say that past nine months have been the most wonderful, yet challenging, nine months of my life. I finally am able to put my finger on why.
There has been a disconnect between what I think I’m suppose to be doing and what I am actually doing. I feel like I could be doing my job better, living my life better, working on my side projects better. Despite my best efforts I couldn’t shrink the gap and the result was a growing frustration with myself followed by a negative thought cycle about my worth and competence.
I was talking with a close friend about everything on my mind and her response was, “I think this job and move to SF are really good for you—it sounds like it’s been a very humbling experience.”
Her words stuck a chord within me and reminded me of Cup 13. My conversation with Dave Isbell focused on humility and sacrifice. I went back and reread the post, which really hit home:
So I understood what it meant to make sacrifices, but somewhere along my college journey, I forgot. It was easy to do. I’m in college! I have the freedom to do what I want! I’m having the time of my life! I don’t want to talk about sacrifice!
Then graduation day arrives and reality sets in.
Dave sees this happen often. Young graduates go out into the world full of pride and excessive confidence only to be humbled when the burdens of life catch up to them.
I unknowingly did exactly what Dave predicted I would do. He and my close friend were spot on—my anxiety was the result of unrealistic expectations. I realized it wasn’t that I wasn’t competent, I was just overly confident in my abilities and the difference between my confidence and competence were creating the frustrating disconnect.
This first real job is the first time I’ve jumped into a new project without approaching it from a beginners perspective. I thought I was already supposed to know everything. I thought I was supposed to be good at everything from the start. That’s why they hired me, right?
I overlooked that my company saw me as a beginner. They hired me because they had faith in my abilities but they knew that there would be a learning curve and over time I would grow into the position.
Knowing that when I started would have been wildly helpful. I would have looked at the new job as a challenge to be embraced with passion and hustle. Instead, I jumped into the job with unrealistic expectations and lots of self-induced pressure to excel. Had I jumped into DECA expecting to operate at 80-90 percent proficiency I would have been quickly overwhelmed and disheartened. Instead of being excited about getting better I would have been overly critical about not being good enough. I would have quit long before nationals were a possibility.
Excitement to achieve a goal is significantly more motivating than walking around with an excess of anxiety and pressure on your shoulders. It took me nine months to figure that out and since I’ve figured it out I’ve been able to reframe my current situation and tackle challenges with a new sense of enthusiasm.
It’s an amazing feeing that I didn’t know I’d been missing.
It’s also an amazing lesson—if you’re always trying new things, you’ll always be a beginner. Regardless of previous success.
Your past experiences can make you better at whatever it is that you’re beginning, but whatever your skills, you don’t get to skip the challenging (and often awkward or uncomfortable) beginning stage.
If you do skip it you’re clearly not tackling big enough challenges. Plus, you’re missing out on the fun of new beginnings—because with the right attitude, new beginnings are a lot of fun.
It’s just really easy to forget that when anxiety and stress weasel themselves into the situation.
So on that note: here’s to a beginners’ mindset for all the wonderful challenges life will bring and the adventures that happen as a result.