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  • Writer's picturejaneboutwell

On Being a Courageous Beginner

(taken from episode 3 of the Growing Creative podcast. Click here to listen.)

As I talked to a friend the other day about this experience of trying to create a podcast...doing it for the first time, she asked me how it was going. I told her about some of the fears that were coming up: the extreme self-consciousness and insecurities, all the things that arise when you're trying to do something new. Then I told her, “You know, I finally realized there's no way to get past being an amateur other than serving your time as one. And I really think that having that realization has freed me to just be a beginner.”

The only way to not have that experience of feeling awkward, like you don't know what's going on, making mistakes...the only way to not be a beginner, is to never try new things; to stop taking the risk of exploring something new.

Diane Ackerman wrote the book Deep Play (a richly written, beautiful book recommended to me by Joy Prouty, my mentor). I'm still making my way through it-- it’s one of those books you read with a pencil in hand. This is a rather long quote, but I think that it really makes a point so well. In Deep Play Diane writes,

“On the other hand, one can turn bronco riding into drudgery. One can create mildly. One can live at low flame. Most people do. We're afraid to look foolish or feel too extravagantly, or make a mistake, or risk unnecessary pain. One fears intensity. But given something like death, what does it matter if one looks foolish now and then, or tried too hard, or cares too deeply? A shallow life creates a world as flat as a shadow. In that half-light, the sun never burns, risks recede, safety becomes habit, and individuals have little to teach one another.”

This quote stirs up something in me that says, “No! I don't want to live a half lit life--never seeing the extremes of sunrise and sunset, never seeing the sun blaze with brightness. If me trying to stay safe and keep everything risky away leads to a life that's gray and without color, without boldness, without beauty, then bring on the risk.”

Those who have known me well, especially from early childhood, must be shaking their heads and saying, “who is this person?” I have lived my life with so many fears. I've gone to amusement parks and been the one who never got on a ride because she was too scared.

Yet, as I've pushed myself over the past couple of years to lean into things that feel scary in order to grow and experience life (instead of sitting there trying to protect myself from death, which is inevitable), I even have found myself imagining what it would be like to skydive. As someone with an extreme fear of heights, this is ridiculous and absurd. I don't think that I'll really do it ( I'm sure my husband is breathing a sigh of relief), but it's been something to imagine: taking that thing I've been morbidly terrified of all my life, jumping out and experiencing life to the fullest-- not letting fear hold me back.

We started this whole conversation about beginning: being a beginner and starting a podcast. Surely, that's not something that could be compared to skydiving. What is it about being a beginner at anything that is so scary? Part of it, I think, is that there's this kind of wobble and uncertainty you feel when you're a beginner. You don't know what's coming next.

I’m writing this at the beginning of the school year. I've been watching my four kids start a new school year. Some of them at new schools, all of them with new routines, new teachers. Children have to be beginners over and over again. As adults stepping into the shoes of being a beginner at something, being an amateur, we have a sense of shame at feeling childish. I think that it's unnerving and it takes courage to step into those shoes. Yet instead of recognizing the courage that people have when they're willing to try something new and be a beginner, we have flashbacks to childhood experiences and we attach a sense of shame. I hope that we can reframe what it is to be a beginner and an amateur. Adults are usually pretty settled and not having to start over and over again. As an adult it's easy to get really secure and feel like you know what you're doing almost all the time. If you choose to pick up something new (and therefore start as a beginner) it is an act of sheer courage and bravery --a willingness to sit in that wobbly, uncertain place of not knowing exactly what you're doing, feeling insecure.

I would love for us to just give ourselves credit when we are willing to try something new, change the conversation inside of our head. When we pick up something that we're unsure about, that we're doing for the first time, instead of listening to that voice in your head, that makes you feel silly and childish, a sense of shame for what you don't know, let's recognize the courage that is there-- the willingness to take the risk. And instead of seeing childishness as something negative, let's embrace the playfulness of children and regain that sense of play because everything I've studied about the science of creativity states that you can't have vibrant creativity without keeping your sense of playfulness alive. Creative work becomes drudgery when it loses that sense of risk and play.

While researching play, I've learned that in order for something to be considered play, there has to be some element of risk. You might lose the game. You might fall off the bike. There are all kinds of examples, but a sense of riskiness is inherent in play and playfulness. And so I would love to encourage us all to change the story in our mind about what it's like to be a beginner, what it's like to step into something unknown and brand new and feel childish. Let's see that childish feeling as something that is positive: powerful play that brings about creativity, brings liveliness and a sense of risk. Let's acknowledge the courage and daring that it takes to show up and take that on. I hope that you can find some small ways today to be a little bit more playful. It's easy to find myself feeling like I need to be sure to look like an adult so that everybody around here respects me. But when I'm willing to get on the ground a little, be a little sillier, do something that's just playful with my kids or with my friends, there's so much more connection. There's so much more of what makes life worth living. Can we all just take a minute, shake our shoulders out, turn on some music, get on a bicycle, try a cartwheel, do something that gets you out of the stodgy, staid, protected, “I know everything” adult status that we cling to in order to have a sense of control and safety around us. Let's see that for the lie that it is.

Instead let's engage in random acts of playfulness and defiant creativity as bold beginners, unwilling to stay within the borders of what we already know.

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