3 min read

Always Be a Beginner

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On Saturday, I went to my first creative writing workshop. I walked in fairly confident. I've published two books, (non-fiction) and I write daily. I read more books than anyone I know. How hard could it be?

My confidence lasted for about 30 seconds.

For most of the workshop, I was uncharacteristically quiet, shrinking into the wall behind me to watch the interesting, experienced writers around me chat happily, and trade book and character references with ease. From the outside, you'd see nothing but friendly faces and animated voices. From the inside, it was like being in a foreign country, listening to people fluent in a language you've only got conversational aptitude in. Pass the salt, anyone?! Every new comment or suggestion was a fresh reminder of how little I knew and how out of my depth I was.


I'd like to say it got easier toward the end, but it got worse first. After a dialogue writing exercise, I winced with embarassment as the others read out their work - clear, interesting and clever. Their hours of practice and mastery of convention were obvious, and my own attempt looked crude and childish in comparison. I might be a writer, but in this world: I'm a novice! And it showed.

Learning is so much easier as a child. The social norms are clear: you're not expected to know anything yet. People are helpful, encouraging, and keen to see you grow.

Once you're an adult, there's lots of bullsh*t in the way. Airs, graces and egos. The success you've experienced elsewhere follows you around, furious at its irrelevance, resisting humility. It feels much less acceptable to admit your ignorance when you're a grown-up - which is why it's so important that we do.

1. Everyone was a beginner once

Once you know something well, you become victim to what the Heath Brothers call 'the curse of knowledge'. Essentially, you forget what it's like not to know and downplay the effort and time that went into your learning. The curse can make it frustrating to talk to people outside of your area of expertise, and make it difficult to connect.

In any environment, work or personal, it's worthwhile remembering what it's like to begin - your first day on the job, the first song you learned on the guitar, how you felt when you walked into your first meeting. That simple step toward empathy can open new paths to conversation and understanding - two things we need more of.


2. It's easy to stop beginning

It's astonishingly easy to stop learning new things. As we get older and our lives become fuller and more demanding, complacency sets in. We speak to the same kind of people, who live the same kinds of lives. We fall into routines: kids, exercise, work, friends, hobbies - and unknowingly shut ourselves off from alternatives. We sit in the same meetings, with the same colleagues, and the gap between ourselves and the richness and diversity of the world widens. 

If we're not careful, we can find ourselves in an invisible bubble, reinforced by the news we read, the places we go, and the people we talk to. Unless we push out of our comfort zones and interact more widely, our inner world starts to shrink. Why is why...

3. We should all be beginners

It's easy to stop learning, but dangerous. The world is oblivious to our complacency, and if we don't stay open, it will move on without us. New ideas, trends and technology rocket forward at pace, and if we let our life shrink around our daily reality, it's hard to keep up.

As I write in You Don't Need An MBA if we don't intentionally stretch, we stiffen. We lose flexibility, empathy, and compassion. We close ourselves off to innovation and inspiration. We get stuck in our ways, stuck in our bubbles and stuck in our reality, fooled into a sense of safety by our same-ness. And that makes it hard to do good stuff.

A meaningful life, with meaningful relationships, and meaningful work, asks us to be flexible. To stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone, open our minds to new perspectives and feel the humility of our ignorance as often as we can. It makes us nicer people, better citizens, and more connected leaders and entrepreneurs - and if that's not a prize worth having, I don't know what is.

For my part, I stayed in the workshop on Saturday. Then, I sucked up my shyness and I went to another one, ready to listen and learn. I've got a long way to go, but rather than feeling silly, I'm choosing to embrace the fear and be excited instead. There's so much to learn, so much to know, and I'm hooked. I've been writing dialogue non-stop for days, and attempt 275 actually isn't too bad! By the thousandth attempt, it may even be good. By which time, I assume, it will be time to begin again, at something else I know nothing about.

TL;DR We should all be uncomfortably stupid about something new, as often as possible. It's good for us and the world around us.