On Finding Value In Being A Beginner
I know nothing. Again.
I’m fumbling around at something that looks so simple. I’ve seen it done before; I know the mechanics - not by touch, not intimately, but certainly I know them intellectually. Like, I know the process of what I’m supposed to be doing and when. And yet, here I am - doing what seems like the correct motions with … well, let’s call them non ideal results. And the worst part is … I know I did this to myself.
It often takes me a long time to make a rash decision. In this case, after years of waffling, I finally completed the last step of the plan. Five years after I’d started talking about it, nearly a year after I’d taken the MSF course, more than 6 months after I’d gotten my license, and three months after buying all of my safety gear…and then after looking at thousands of options and visiting a dozen dealers, I was sitting on top of a motorcycle. My motorcycle. That I owned. And sitting on my new-to-me motorcycle, just ten feet inside of my parking garage, I stared down at this modern engineering marvel … in horror … thinking “I have absolutely no idea what I’ve gotten myself into…”
One of the things I’ve been cognizant of this year (aside from how time has been just super weird) is that for the past three years, much of my day-to-day life had become an exercise in routine. Not rote, but certainly repetitive. Perhaps it’s what happens as we specialize in our employment (that is, after all, what “15 years experience” denotes - specialization through experience, and experience through repetition.) So while I wasn’t an expert at very many things, those few things seemed as if they comprised 95% of my waking life.
Over the past couple years, that repetition of my day-to-day existence started to wear away at me. Or perhaps it’s the awareness of the feeling that did. But either way, as I examined my day-to-day life, I realized that when I was honest with myself, I actually had a larger part to play in reinforcing this repetition than I’d been admitting. I realized I had chosen to make my life consist mostly of those things I was good at. It was a conscious decision pursued under the premise of furthering my career.
Now I doubt I’m alone in often desiring to be proficient at things that are complex or difficult. I also doubt I’m alone in having a bad habit of collecting discarded hobbies. For every cool or difficult thing that I’ve learned to do, I’ve probably tried and discarded a dozen more along the way, oftentimes using the “I’m not an instant expert” excuse as a reason to not pursue them further. But that’s ultimately an unhealthy combination: narrowing your world down to those things you are already good at and discarding new elements of your life unless you’re already proficient at them from the beginning is how you end up … well, it’s how you end up feeling like your world is very small and repetitive.
Since what I was feeling was the result of my own actions, breaking out of it would require taking personal action as well. I realized that if I was going to fix this, I needed to force myself to become a beginner again. I needed to break out of my self-imposed decision to only do the things that I was good at, get out of my comfort zone, become okay with not being an instant expert, and discover new experiences alongside the unknown repercussions.
In short: I need to be comfortable being uncomfortable again.
But here’s the thing: I didn’t do that.
Instead, I continued to know that I needed to do something, and I continued to not do anything about it. (Sound familiar? Don’t beat yourself up about it.)
In the end, what actually spurred me into action wasn’t embracing my personal agency or a mental breakthrough or a final ah-ha moment - it was a good friend peer pressuring me into taking the first step over a series of text messages. I expect that she could tell I needed something external to push me forward, so she did a small amount of work that almost magically broke through whatever mental blocker had prevented me from doing so of my own volition.
So the irony of me taking forever to make this rash decision of personal agency was that in many ways, I needed someone to help me make it. That’s what friends are for. It’s also why I owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Within minutes, she helped me progress from “talking about doing something” to “doing something” with three text messages and a link.
Which brings us to February, when I took ownership of a slightly used Yamaha R3 in the basement of my parking garage and promptly stalled it out. And then again. And then three or four attempts later, got it moving in first gear and up to the second story parking spot where it would spend its alone time for a bit while I wondered whether or not this was a very expensive piece of temporary small-talk.
My first ride a week or so later was around the parking structure of my apartment complex. My second one was too. And my third. My fourth ride was a three minute ride around the block at sunrise on a Saturday. My fifth was back inside the parking complex. My sixth was up the street a bit once again in the very early morning, and then back down the street again as soon as I saw too many (read: 3) cars on the road.
You get the picture - baby steps. But here’s the thing: every single iota of progress has been monumental. Every single time I get on the bike I get to see exponential growth in something complicated, and hard, and yes, at times dangerous.
There’s something incredibly gratifying about looking back at my first rides, and seeing how far I’ve come since then. For the first month, I would steadily decrease the number of times I stalled the engine during a ride, but I remember the first ride I had where that number was zero. I remember the first time I got into sixth gear. The first time I went on a freeway. Every single time I went out on my bike, there was a new victory and demonstrable progress that I could point to and say “I’ve improved from the last time.”
In fact, the progress has been so quick and so consistent, that in the month since I originally started writing this essay and when I picked it up again yesterday to edit and post it, I had to delete a couple paragraphs about the things I was working up to next because I’d already done them. A month ago I’d set those achievements, and in the time it took me to get back to this post, I’d surpassed them.
Having something in my life that can be measured in massive, monumental, exponential success, where I can be grateful to be a beginner, and cherish advancing beyond that (though I’m damn sure still a beginner here, let’s be real) has been such a huge addition to my world. Maybe it’s a small thing, but it feels good. I can look at those first rides and see how far I’ve come since then.
As I figured out how I wanted to approach this post, I realized that this desire to be a beginner again wasn’t a resolution; it was something I only realized once it was lost. And now that I’ve enjoyed becoming more proficient on my bike, it’s something that’s translated into other areas of my life as well. I’m more comfortable trying new things and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone (exhibit A: writing publicly again…)
Looking back at everything I’ve done since February of this year, I can say that it’s been a year of massive personal change and material progress. I won’t attribute that singularly to learning to ride, but I expect the two are interconnected in some fashion. Moving beyond one’s fears, insecurities, and doubts is rarely an isolated experience.
Beyond the joy of riding itself (which, let’s be clear, is a fucking awesome thing to experience) the biggest takeaway from being a beginner again has been shifting my perspective to value discomfort instead of comfort, and being okay with not being perfect at something that I shouldn’t expect myself to excel at from the first step. I’m getting a lot better about reminding myself that sucking at something for a while is how you eventually get good at it.
Next time we’ll talk about loving things that never end.