The Importance of Being A Beginner

Zen Bizarro-07-22-12-WEB bizarrocomics comOne of the biggest challenges of becoming a coach at this stage in my life is being a beginner all over again. Having spent years becoming an “expert” at things – first law, then journalism, then national security/human rights – it’s frustrating to go back to square one. Of course, no one ever totally masters anything completely, but after a few years doing something you get the hang of it enough to feel at least competent. Not so when you’re learning something brand new. It is, to say the least, humbling.

That can be true even for things that are supposed to be fun. I’m on vacation right now, for example, stretching the summer into September by spending this week in Maine. It’s beautiful up here, and I decided to bring some drawing materials with me to really immerse myself in that aspect of it. But the truth is, I haven’t done much drawing since I graduated from college. That was a long time ago. Over the last year, though, I’d decided I wanted to get back into doing something more creative, exercise the right brain a bit and let my more rational, judgmental side get some rest. So I’ve been taking the occasional drawing class (with this great teacher) – some life drawing, and an occasional pastel workshop. Surely, I thought, I could capture the beauty of Maine if I tried.

Not so easy. Two hours of pastel drawing while perched on the edge of a cove on an overturned canoe yesterday, trying to render an incredible landscape of wildflowers and beach grasses and evergreens, turned into a pretty big mess. There are a few parts of the drawing that kind of work, but there’s a big blob in the middle that I can’t make head or tail of.

At first, I found this really frustrating. I’d just spent half the afternoon to create this? It didn’t help when later in the day I stepped into a gallery in town and saw a perfectly-rendered framed pastel of a woman kayaking in a blanket of fog. I felt defeated.

I love what I’m learning, whether it’s coaching or drawing. But learning something new will always be hard, and sometimes even a bit humiliating. It requires going back to being a beginner while living in a culture that’s focused on celebrating expertise. For those of us raised to prize achievement and accumulate merit badges over the course of our educational and professional lives, it’s hard to start back at the beginning. But I’m finding it’s also wonderful: it allows me to truly value and appreciate and learn from others, while I grow and stretch myself.

This made me feel better about my lousy drawing, too:  Scientists have found that learning new things actually rewires our brains and makes them function better, through a process called myelination. That requires practice.

I like the Buddhist perspective, which, unlike Western culture, actually celebrates “beginner’s mind.” As Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki puts it in his book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

The idea is not only to be open to the new, but to deliberately adopt a fresh perspective on everything — including on the things you do or see every day. Dr. Kevin Tidgewell, a professor of Medicinal Chemistry at Duquesne University, applies the idea to his scientific studies: “this beginner’s mind philosophy is the idea that you should come in your practice with no ego…. you should come with an open mind in that all things are possible, not simply the previously held beliefs and the standard beliefs of the field.”

Consider the alternative:  if you’re not willing to brave being a beginner or to adopt a beginner’s mind, you never learn or see new things. And so, for the sake of maintaining a polished exterior and a comfortable, if somewhat stale, interior, you stay stuck – pretty much repeating yourself over and over again.



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