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Right now, I’m in the “saggy middle” of my next book. The first draft is done, and the second, and third, and… well, I’m very ready for it to be finished now :)
This part—the 80% done part—is where my self-doubt starts to creep in, big time. The part where I start thinking “Is this even any good? Will readers find it remotely useful? Is it even worth sharing?” By now, I know this is part of the process, because it’s happened every. single. time. Even though I’ve finished books before, each new book is its own challenge, stretches me in its own ways, and forces me to grow as a writer and a person.
With any big project, I go through three distinct phases:
- The novelty. It’s new, it’s shiny, I’m rocking and rolling, woohoo!
- The dip. It’s hard, I suck, will I ever be any good at this?
- The crossroads. I want to be better at this than I am, surely I should be better at this by now? Maybe I should just quit…
By now, I know when I find myself in the place I described above (somewhere between the dip and the crossroads), the best course of action is to persevere. But that requires facing what radio host Ira Glass calls “the gap,” where my vision of what my writing should look like exceeds my skill level right now. And this is where embracing a beginner’s mindset becomes crucial, because although that gap might never close completely, it’s a beginner’s mindset that will help me make it smaller and smaller.
As a typical type-A raised to believe in results and gold stars, being a beginner has historically been an awkward, uncomfortable and somewhat embarrassing phase to get through as soon as possible. But in rushing to graduate beginner-dom, I’ve closed myself off to new opportunities. I’ve avoided doing the work I need to do to improve. I’ve dropped projects prematurely. Hardest of all, I’ve looked back with regret at things I didn’t do for no other reason than because they just felt too uncomfortable.
The fact is everyone starts as a beginner. And, it’s only through a willingness to embrace a beginner’s mindset, even when doing something I’ve done several time before, that I’ve found creative fulfilment and joy.
The Four Stages of Competence
Whenever you learn anything new, there are four key stages you go through. You don’t always reach all these stages. Sometimes, what you’re learning isn’t a huge priority. Sometimes, you decide where you are is good enough. Sometimes, you get discouraged and give up, losing the opportunity to progress to the next stage. In order to get started on this path, though, you need to embrace a beginner’s mindset.
When you first start out with a new activity or skill, you have unconscious incompetence. In other words, you don’t know much—and you don’t yet know just how much you don’t know!
The next stage, and the one that poses the most challenges when it comes to creative pursuits, is conscious incompetence. When you’re in this stage, you’re aware of how much you don’t know. Especially in the initial stages of this phase, however, you might not yet know how to change that.
If you’re willing to do the work, eventually you will move to conscious competence. This is where you are getting better at what you’re doing, but you still need to think about it to get it right. Although you might feel buoyed by progress, the amount of energy this stage takes can be draining.
Finally, if you stick with it, you reach the stage of unconscious competence. This is the hallowed stage where the skill or activity in question becomes as natural as riding a bike. It becomes second nature and something you can do on autopilot.
But your journey doesn’t end there.
Growth is a constant process. If you want to keep growing and improving yourself, your work, your creative pursuits, you’re going to keep cycling through these four stages. Once you’ve reached conscious competence in one stage of our business, as soon as we decide to level up, we’re going to be thrown right back into unconscious incompetence again.
So how can you get comfortable with a beginner’s mindset?
1. Remember the stages. I’ve found it helpful just remembering the stages of competence and realising “Oh, I’m in the conscious incompetence phase right now and that’s why this feels so hard.” I also know that if I’m willing to keep going, then it will start to get easier.
2. Deliberate practice. In his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport talks about the importance of deliberate practice. This is the kind of practice that stretches you past your comfort zone and invites feedback on your performance. It’s not comfortable, it’s not always fun, but it’s necessary to move to the next stage of competence.
3. Be open to detours. Remember there isn’t just one right path to a destination. When life and work gets challenging, I am susceptible to looking at other people and assume they’re further ahead than I am. Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Whatever path you’re on is the right path for you, so embrace it and make it your own.
Over to you: how do you deal with being a beginner in life and work? Leave a comment and share your thoughts.