Five ways to be a better beginner

If you’re like many Americans, you’ve already made your 2014 resolutions. And by their very nature, it’s likely that your resolutions will have you trying something new—or something old in a new way.

According to the research reported in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 14% of those of us over 50 years old will achieve our new year resolutions, while more than twice of those in their twenties will do so.

Why is that? Could it be that as we get older, we forget how to learn? Or perhaps we get so comfortable in our expertise in an area that we’re less willing to try new things.



Peter Vaill, author of Learning as a Way of Being, suggests we should always work at being better beginners. “We do not need competency skills for this life,” he writes. “We need incompetency skills, the skills of being effective beginners.” [Emphasis his]

It’s easy to see how we might lose our learning edge over time. We spend the first twenty years or so of our lives in a structured and sequential learning process. We know, more or less, what’s expected of us—and what’s to come. But upon graduation, the academic structure of institutional learning ceases. Suddenly, we’re on our own.

If you were like me, you felt relief. Finally, the books were left behind as you got on with life in the real world. Anxious to prove yourself and discover what was out there, you approached the world like a sponge, eager to soak up every experience. Every experience had something new to offer—and you were a beginner in all of them.

I remember feeling that way when I went to work at my first corporate job after college. I was astonished at the amazing people I worked with, the work we were doing, and how much I was learning. I remember telling Anna, “I can’t believe they pay me to work here.”

But years later, as my expertise increased, my learning curve decreased and with it, my complacency rose. I stopped paying attention to what I was learning, or even whether I was learning. Ironically, my own experience had blinded me from seeing that I had lost my beginner’s edge; only that I needed a change.

For me that change involved starting my own company twenty years ago—a rather dramatic way to become a beginner again. Fortunately, you don’t have to take such a radical step to becoming a better beginner. Here are five ways you can keep learning like a beginner:

  1. Read and read widely. Reading is one of those proficiencies we often take for granted. We seldom think intentionally about what to read and how to read it. So we read only from a certain genre or read “when we get a chance” or when we have to. Instead, becoming a better learner starts with an intentional reading strategy. An excellent resource to challenge the way we read is Mortimer Adler’s classic, How to Read a Book. His list of must-read books in the appendix is, on its own, an invaluable resource.
  2. Meet new people. If you want to get warm, move closer to the fire. While it’s still early in the year, set a goal to attend a workshop or conference where you can meet new people. Conference and workshop attendees are, by and large, eager to learn and to share what they’ve learned. Many of them, like you, are there to meet new people too. Win-win.
  3. Start something. How does one become a more proficient beginner? By beginning something; especially something you’ve never tried before. What new thing will you begin this year? Learn a new language. Enroll in a improv school to learn stand-up comedy. Pick up a new hobby. Start a non-profit. The possibilities for new beginnings are endless.
  4. Teach something. There’s certainly no better way to really learn something than to be on the hook to teach it to others. In my post, Those who want, teach, I suggested that just the preparation to teach (even if we never do) helps us think more critically and to communicate more clearly. One of the best ways to become a better beginner then is to turn around and teach what little you know to the next guy.
  5. Join a group. Create or find an affinity group you can join. No matter what you want to learn, there’s likely a group of people meeting about it already, or wanting to begin a group. With video conference technologies so readily available, there’s no reason not to tap into the energy and expertise of others from around the world.

This year I’m committing myself to be a better beginner by setting an action step in each of these areas. Would you like to start that with me?

What are some of the goals you have to be a better beginner this year?

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