The Secret of the Beginner


Last year, I began practicing yoga.  And let me tell you, that was (and continues to be) a humbling experience.   I was terrible (now I am only half terrible I am pleased to report).   But I was able to stick with it because I know the secret of being a beginner.

This is the secret of being a beginner: You are probably going to be bad, maybe even really, really bad, at whatever it is you are doing in the beginning.

According to the dictionary, a beginner is “a person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.”  So relax, it’s not you–beginners, by their very definition, are not very good.

Maybe this seems self-evident or even overly simplistic, yet I know from my own experience teaching kids how frequently they (or their parents) give up gymnastics determining that they are “not good” at it after just a few weeks of lessons.  (And how many of the people who started with me in my yoga class, disappeared after a few sessions.)

Sure, perhaps for some people, the activity just isn’t what they thought it would be and it isn’t a good fit for them.  But here is the question to ask before you stop trying the thing that you are beginning: If I were to be good at this, would I enjoy it?

Would I enjoy knitting if I could make a sweater that I would want to wear?  Yes.

Would I enjoy yoga if I could touch my toes?  Probably.

Would I enjoy hunting if I were really good at shooting a gun?  No.   Not a chance.  Therefore, hunting is not for me no matter how good I got at shooting a gun.

If the answer is yes or probably, then it makes sense to stick with it a little longer to see if your skills get better if you enjoy it more.  If the answer is a resounding no, it’s time to move on.

Sure, you could make the calculation that you might enjoy and activity if you were good at it (I am fairly certain I would enjoy speaking French), but you aren’t willing to put the time and energy into it (I don’t want to actually go through the process of studying).   But more often than not, activities that we have already begun were important enough to us to try.  So, therefore, consider sticking it out a little longer to see how you might feel once you begin to improve.  Be patient, be persistent and practice.

So here are my tips on how to be a beginner:

  1. Stop judging yourself (or your children) so quickly.  It takes time to discover how good you will be at something.
  2. Prepare yourself (or your children) for this reality of a beginner by explaining that whenever they try something new they are likely going to struggle when they are just starting.  So, not only is it okay, it is entirely and completely normal!
  3. While you are at it, remind yourself (and them) that there should be no expectation that results will be immediate once a new activity begins.  It takes time to develop skills, especially in a sport as difficult as gymnastics (or in my case yoga).
  4. Remember what will get you (and them) through the beginner’s valley are the three Ps:  patience, persistence and practice.  Patience is difficult, especially in our instant-gratification-is-not-quick-enough culture.  Yet, without patience for ourselves and for others, we won’t be able to stick around long enough to see how much we can improve. Persistence is that quality of showing up and trying hard, even when (or maybe especially when) we don’t feel like it or when we don’t see any improvement.  And practice, is the repetition of skills and the incorporation of feedback to improve whatever it is we are doing.
  5. If you (or they) want to stop doing the activity after giving it a fair try, ask first if you (or they) would enjoy it if they were better at it.  If the answer is yes, then stick with it a bit longer, maybe seeking some additional support to give yourself (or them) a chance to make that a reality.
  6. And, while contrary to what we might think, it is possible to enjoy something and not be very good at it.  Proof enough is all of the YMCAs that are filled with middle aged men playing basketball every Saturday morning (or me at yoga).   Allow for the possibility that you (or your children) don’t have to be super successful to enjoy something.

I am still in the beginner class at my yoga studio.  People have come and gone, progressing into the intermediate and even advanced classes while I am still toiling away in Power 1.   My warrior 2 looks more like a civilian 1.5 and balancing on one leg for more than a few seconds still eludes me.

But I have improved.

I don’t mean to brag, but I can touch my toes easily.   And, I am a bit of a show off because now I can make it through the whole class without puking.   Would I enjoy yoga more if I could effortlessly do a one-footed chatturange or actually balance on my hands?  Probably.

But for now, I am content in being a beginner and in knowing that I don’t have to be the best or even very good at something to find pleasure in it.