Recently I’ve gotten into a few fascinating discussions with strangers about their chosen specialties. Most memorably they are in scientific fields that, mere seconds into the conversation, starts to feel like another language thanks to my years submerged in the arts. See, at this point most of the people I know have five, seven, ten plus years of experience doing what they’re doing. In short, many of them have, at some level, become experts.
Tonight I was reminded of the importance of continually putting ourselves in a situations where we are, once again, beginners. Little kids do this automatically because they are still beginners at just about anything. They don’t have time to feel pride or fear because they’re so damn busy learning. But as we grow into our new mantel as experts, we quickly lose our comfort being new.
About halfway through college, when I realized that my required classes were coming to an end, I promised myself that every year of my life I will take at least one class. It could be a ten week course or a ten hour workshop, but by the end of every year I will have put aside the time, paid the money, and learned a new skill. This year, I finally signed up for something that I’ve been planning to do for a long time: swing dancing.
The first class was not fun.
I’ve spent enough time in other dance worlds that I feel confident going out on the floor with the experts. And then comes this new music, with a beat that is just similar enough to other dances I’ve done to make it feel wrong. I was surrounded by people who didn’t know their right foot from their left foot, who bounced up and down on the wrong beat and accidentally stepped on my feet, and I realized that I was one of them. I was a beginner again and it didn’t feel good.
I left pretty quickly after class that first week, and if I hadn’t already paid the money for the next class I might not have gone. Thankfully, I did and I had a friend doing it with me so this week once again I showed up. As the music started, I was cynical and incredibly self-conscious, looking around the room and trying to pretend that I wasn’t. But about halfway through the class, things started to shift. The awkward foot patterns began to fall into place not only for myself but for my partners. We had, just like that, learned to turn around in a circle! It was marvelous!
After reaching a certain level of mastery in the art forms I currently practice, I had forgotten the glowing satisfaction of getting something right for the first time. It’s a look all elementary school teachers know. The rounded eyes, the perfect “O” of the lips, breaking to spread into a toothy smile as accomplishment sets in. It’s invigorating. It’s addictive. It feels like there is energy coursing right under your skin, making your heart throw itself against your ribcage and your grin creak with its width. There is nothing quite like it.
Unfortunately, as we march further and further along our chosen paths of expertise we leave these gleeful moments behind. What used to be novel is now mundane, what used to be challenging is now mindless. The further we get from being beginners, the harder it is to convince ourselves to go through that torture again. We forget that overcoming the initial nervousness, insecurity, and quick glances around the room is exactly what makes that first moment of achievement so fulfilling. It is only by continuing to push ourselves, to face discomfort in search of the satisfaction of new experiences well accomplished, that we will constantly surprise ourselves with our new levels of expertise.