“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” — Epictetus
Very few people enjoy the feeling of being a beginner.
That awkward, bumbling beginner phase is something most people will do just about anything to avoid. I know this because I avoided being bad at things for most of my life, choosing instead to always play to my strengths.
Growing up, I wouldn’t even try something new unless I was reasonably sure I would be good at it. I followed this same strategy until around my mid-twenties, when I realized that I’d need to start putting myself in challenging and uncomfortable situations or risk remaining the same person for the rest of my life.
I’ve tested my willingness to be a beginner countless times over the years, pushing myself out of my comfort zone by doing things like taking up handstands, writing my first book, traveling, and living around the world. Most recently, I began training in martial arts. After feeling somewhat athletically competent for years, training elements of taekwondo, Judo, karate, and jiu-jitsu instantly transported me back to being a complete beginner.
The other day, my martial arts coach taught me a new skill called a tornado kick, a 360 roundhouse kick that’s considered basic level at best for any taekwondo practitioner.
I didn’t grow up doing martial arts or gymnastics and have no natural ability for either. Now, in my thirties, anything involving twisting feels especially foreign to me.
I was acutely aware of my thought process as I began to work the skill, feeling the epitome of foolish and stupid.
Sitting with Discomfort
The following is what went through my head as my coach began to teach me a tornado kick:
He begins by showing me the skill at full speed. It looks like nothing but a blur to me. My brain can’t comprehend what’s happening. My cheeks start to flush. I can’t even tell you which direction he is twisting, let alone any of the specific elements that make up the move. How many times is he turning? Which leg is kicking in what direction? I don’t have the slightest clue. I feel a rush of shame and embarrassment that I don’t understand what I know is a basic skill (see an example of what it should look like here).
He urges me to try it. The voice in my head tells me it’s impossible, pointless even to try. My body feels like lead. I don’t move.
Seeing my hesitation, he starts breaking it down. He shows me each piece of the skill individually and slowly. Although it looks cool, in theory, it’s not an overly complicated move — there’s a step, and a knee up, and then a roundhouse kick back to regular fighting stance.
My body is still fighting me, but I override it and give it a shot. I am distinctly aware of the voice in my head as I fumble through my initial attempts. It tells me quite forcefully that it’s too much too late in life for me to start learning a skill like this. It insists that I’ll never get better even if I work at it for years, so any attempts I make are just a waste of time. But mostly, it’s telling me to stop trying and give up right now.
The voice sounds like the voice of a toddler. I am instantly transported back to childhood and fight to compose myself, lest I unintentionally stomp my foot in protest and run off to cry in the corner.
It doesn’t help that there are very few other complete beginners around. We are training in a gymnastics-style gym that caters to martial artists, parkour athletes, and stunt performers. Everyone else in the gym seems to be performing kicks and spins much more difficult with ease. I force myself to continue to practice rep after rep even when all I can think of is how terrible I must look.
I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror and confirm that, yes, I look just as pitiful as I expected. I try harder to shut out the voice in my head and keep throwing reps in between stretching breaks. I remind myself that no one was born learning to kick, spin, or do cool tricks. Every single person goes through this awkward beginner stage.
Sure, some people go through it at a much younger age, so the memories of that awkwardness may have faded long ago. And some people are born with more talent and coordination than the rest of us.
But as the psychologist Angela Duckworth and author of Grit puts it, “as much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”
Being Willing to Try
One thing I know I can do at this point in my life is put in effort. I may not be the most naturally gifted athlete or the quickest to learn, but the ability to work hard when others might quit long ago became a part of who I am. I’ve gotten through this awkward beginner stage many times before; I can do it again.
Feeling a sense of competency or mastery is one of the greatest feelings we can have as human beings. But without putting ourselves in those awkward beginner stages to begin with, we will never know just how far we can push ourselves. To continue to grow, to reach even a portion of our potential, we have to allow ourselves to try in the first place.
In other words, we have to embrace feeling foolish and stupid.