How to be a beginner again
Being a complete beginner at something reminded me why the beginner's mindset is important.
I’m good at my profession, I’m good at my hobbies and I would go as far to say that I’m good at most things that I dedicate my time to. Recently I invested time in a new skill that I’m not good at, that I’m a total beginner at; I learned to ski. I’m still learning and have a long way to go, but being a total beginner at something again was enlightening. The initial frustration and (self-imposed) expectation of myself was replaced by a feeling of mental lightness and enjoyment.
After a few sessions and making reasonable progress I started to reflect upon how the beginner’s mindset could be applied to an area where I already feel I am competent.
You Need a Teacher
You can watch as many YouTube tutorials as you like, at some point you need proper instruction from somebody skilled in teaching others. Asking somebody who is better at something than you may not always be the best strategy, especially if the person is a long standing practitioner as they may not be able to clearly articulate concepts that are instinctive to them resulting in us feeling that we “don’t get it”.
You need to let the instructor watch you fail in order to point out where you went wrong. The longer you delay this, the more you risk not improving and at worse developing bad habits that are hard to undo.
Focus on One Thing
The beauty of being a beginner is that it makes you focus on only one thing at a time. The very first time gravity takes hold and you whiz down a slope it’s unlikely that your mind will be cluttered with thoughts about what type of ski boots you have, whether your feet are wide enough or if you should be using Vim or Visual Studio. It’s highly likely that you will be thinking about the snow plough and not much else.
The mental freedom of focusing on one thing at a time is a foundation to progress. After enough focus the snow plough just “happens” when it’s needed. After snow plough stopping, it’s snow plough turning, then turning without the snow plough, then stopping without the snow plough. All of these concepts are built upon that first thing.
Falling Over is Important
You cannot make progress without falling over. You need to experiment with new techniques until you fall over. Only then do we begin to understand where the boundaries lay. This process must be repeated in different contexts. After a little while we fall less, but then suddenly we find ourselves looking skyward unsure of how we got there.
Nobody else cares if you fall over, they are all too busy trying not to fall over themselves. Get back up, catch a breath and continue. With each fall we are reducing the chance of falling over next time.
Repetition is Unavoidable
It’s not enough to successfully complete some manoeuvres a few times and then move on. It must be repeated until forged into muscle memory. If we want the right skills to become a natural reflex when something unexpected happens like skiing over ice or another skier cutting in front of you then careful repetition is the only way. I say careful repetition, as we must always consider good form.
Tired repetition is a waste of energy, counter productive and at worst commits bad technique to muscle memory. If we feel tired, sloppy and are loosing discipline it’s time to break and have a coffee.
Understand your Limits
Skiing is dangerous. Slopes are triaged from beginner to advanced using the colours, green, blue, red and black. As a beginner you start out on a green slope until you are ready for the next stage. Trying to run a red slope after only a few sessions means that you were able to get from the top to the bottom of a red slope, but doesn’t necessarily make you a good skier. Unless you have the thrill seeker gene (I don’t), it will most likely be that this urge to climb the ranks is motivated by trying to keep up with your peers at the expense of our own progress (like I did).
Be patient. Master the green slope. Then the blue. Then the red. Then the black. Respect the skill of others and the hard work it took them to reach their level. One day it will be us gliding down a tricky slope like an elegant swan. But for now, we are still bambi and that’s ok. Don’t spend too much time on that green slope. Sometimes we should listen to others who think “we’re ready” for that next slope, even if we don’t think so.
We Need to Work Harder (but not too much)
As beginners the only way we can even try to keep up with the more experienced is by raw effort. Our legs, arms and lungs have to do a lot more work. Until we master more techniques this is a fact of life. This of course means that we will fatigue sooner and we have to remind ourselves of this and let others continue onwards whilst we pause for breath. Pushing too hard means tired legs, lots of falling and a miserable day.
By keeping at it we build up the right type of stamina and can do more with less effort. Structuring effort by starting of at medium pace (blue slope), pushing a little (red slope) and wrapping up with a small victory (green slope) gets us into the flow, pushes us a little and lets us finish on a high ready to take on the next day. Finishing a day by falling most of the way down a slope above our level isn’t a moral booster.
The most valuable thing about being a beginner is sticking to a structure. This is mostly due to blissful ignorance as each new concept is presented and learned sequentially. In my experience as I pass though the advanced beginner phase of an activity I become more aware of all the things that I don’t know about and the water starts to muddy. All of these factors, thoughts and considerations are a potential attack on this structure of progress. The side effects vary from working too hard, not enough repetition for mastery, focusing on too many things at once or having miserable days trying to keep up with the more experienced.
Paradoxically, the more you know about something the more you realise how much of a beginner you really are. What I’m going to do next? Go and (potentially) fall over in public, safe in the knowledge that it’s all good progress.
What beginner stories do you have?