The beginning of any pursuit is a testing time. It acts as a mirror and drags up those fears, limiting beliefs and unhelpful patterns that we’d rather run away from. These create a wall around us that seems impenetrable but is actually illusory. If we don’t know how to learn, we can easily get trapped there.
After reading this article, which dovetails nicely with my article on the four types of learners, you’ll be much better equipped to wrestle with the early stages of the learning process. You can take these insights into any area you’re exploring for the first time – from new careers and hobbies to fresh responsibilities, such as parenthood.
Some of my words might seem bleak and pessimistic, but my intention is to warn and inform, not scare.
After many years spent learning diligently, and watching students and friends applying themselves in their endeavours, I’ve come to realise that newbie status throws up dangerous dynamics, and the point of lift-off can decide whether we succeed or not. Life is constantly asking us to step up, and we’ll only match up to these requests if we bring the right mentality to bear.
I see the start of any learning journey to have three main phases: the very beginning, when we’re filled with enthusiasm, the fall from Eden, when we realise the magnitude of our new venture, and the marriage, when we finally commit long-term to develop competence.
How to Learn: We Have Lift-off
The beginning of any pursuit is an intense time on the journey.
Our first taste of a venture often brings a huge mental expansion. There is inspiration, excitement and a pronounced shine of newness. We find new people, new people, new teachers, new places, and new routines. Our eyes open to an unexplored area of life. It’s almost like the moment when you find a new partner after seeking. You’re captivated by your beloved, and when you look in the mirror you see a new version of yourself.
On the other hand, the start is when we come into contact with the heroes that preceded us. Our low level of competence makes us feel remarkably unexceptional in comparison and may undermine our excitement.
We look clumsy and klutzy; they move with grace and ease. Cue the classic: “How do they make it look so easy?” “Is it hard for me because I’m a mess up?” A foreigner to this new area of life, we might believe we are inherently incapable of reaching a high level and that those masters were privy to a secret potion.
It can also be a humbling experience, especially as we get older and more stuck in our ways. You have to surrender your image of seniority and superiority – success in other areas of life might even become a stumbling block. Perhaps we do learn more slowly as adults, but it could be that our own inner blocks and unwillingness to start fresh with an open mind are what jeopardise our efforts.
In any case, the initial excitement usually keeps us in orbit for a while, long enough to dip our toes in the water.
The Fall From Eden
After the initial love affair with the endeavour often comes a sober dose of reality. The depth of the subject is revealed and seeming oblivion opens before us. This thing is much more vast than we thought.
The new equipment loses its shine. The veil of sexiness shrouding the pursuit is unceremoniously torn off. Now we see that the actual process of getting good at this thing is way uglier and messier than it seemed. At this point, our progress slows, and we’re forced to really get our hands dirty.
You see, we humans care about image. Part of the appeal of excelling in life is the image and presence our status affords us. But appearances can be deceptive, and they pose a danger in the realm of learning and skill-building.
While the greats do look great, the journey to competence is not flashy. It’s like a magic trick – it only looks good from a certain angle and when done quickly. Slow it down or reveal the secret sauce and it loses all appeal.
Analogously, very few people talk about the dirt and grime the great masters crawled through to get to where they are. Finesse and flow lie on the other side of the swamp. When you first come across this drudgery, you face a decision. Will your preoccupation with flimsy appearances cut you down, or will you stick through the hard labour required for graceful performance?
How to Learn: Marrying Your Pursuit
Don’t worry, I do have ways out of this predicament. There are several ways to overcome the obstacles in our way at the beginning and commit to long-term learning.
Most of these solutions are mindset oriented. Your mentality is what holds you up when you have no competence to hold onto.
First off, cultivate the growth mindset here. Be like The Master. Realise that being a child in a new pursuit is natural. Your path to glory is forged by steel, determination and practice, not inherent ability.
Next, avoid dabbling. The Dabbler loves the rituals involved in starting up a new pursuit, but their allergy to monogamy makes them jump ship too early.
Once you find a hobby, career or pursuit that lights you up, make it yours. Don’t let the insatiable need for newness blindside you. When the veil of sexiness is removed, keep going. Rather than shying away from the difficulty, be present with it and participate in it. Practice with a spirit of love and patience. Reconnect with your initial motivations and hold onto your vision.
Finally, establish solid routines and habits. These ground you and provide a sense of continuity and stability when the going gets rough. In a group setting, the structure might already be in place. Great. If you’re going it alone, it’s down to you. A favourite strategy of mine, which offers flexibility within certain limits, is to dedicate a certain number of hours per week to the pursuit. Another is to simply practice it for a predefined amount of time on certain days of the week.
Over time, routines become integrated into our lives and we take solace in them. Done consistently, a simple routine can be life-changing. When I sit down to do my language study, I feel at home. When I open a book to analyse the author’s writing, it’s as though I’m settling into my favourite chair.
The prospect of starting out might seem more daunting to you than it did before, but don’t fret. The realities of skill-building are unsavoury. You’re now better prepared than most people for them. And with time, your attitude to launching new projects and ventures will shift.
Whenever I start a new endeavour, I basically expect to suck. I brace myself for some humbling experiences on the journey. My focus goes on routine and diligence rather than my fears and fantasies. I roll with the initial struggle and tedium, knowing I’ll be rewarded with flow states and satisfaction further down the line.
On the flip side, another crucial aspect of the learning journey is those moments when we look back and suddenly realise how far we have come. Finally, we can lay down our tools for a while and just marvel at what we’ve created. Make sure to acknowledge those moments and savour their sweetness. They recur throughout the journey, usually separated by periods of relative tedium and graft.
And with enough competence, everything becomes a pleasure. The fundamentals are now inbuilt. We have developed deep roots that allow us to expand and create up top. We can both penetrate to the marrow of the subject and move off into new directions. Practice is pleasurable, and we move with elegance and poise.
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Freelance translator and founder of The Great Updraft, where you’ll find tools for self-transformation. Obsessed with psychology, philosophy, society, human evolution and personal development.