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A Beginner's Guide to Beginning

Want to develop a new skill in 2022? Here’s how

Manipulated photo of a man upside down with only his legs showing depicting a jumping in head first style to beginning
Getty Images

When did you last learn something new? 

I’m not talking about the time you joined Instagram or started doing pour-over coffee at home. I’m talking about deep, substantive skills.

Truth is, you’ve probably avoided taking up that dream avocation — be it learning the banjo, the art of bonsai or anything else — because you think that you don’t have time or that you won’t be good.

You’re right, you won’t be … at least in the beginning.

Taking up something new is like throwing a pebble into a pond: The ripple is small at first, but it grows wider over time, and you never know what distant shore it may reach. For all our expertise, many of us have forgotten how to be beginners. Here’s a quick guide to navigating the deep end of novicehood.

Avoid overly strict or ambitious goals 

I know this sounds like the opposite of everything you’ve heard. We’re supposed to set goals. Don’t they steer us toward success? 

The problem is, setting precise goals is like trying to forecast the weather with zero knowledge of meteorology. Setting the wrong goals and then failing to meet them is hugely demotivating. Your failure will turn into resentment of the thing you’re trying to learn. 

Best to set goals that you can see. Rode one wave today while surfing? Tomorrow, ride two. 

Embrace failure

When we were infants, we were supreme beginners. The whole world was new to us; everything had to be learned. This did not happen without errors. In learning to walk, for example, infants fall an average of 17 times per hour. Do they agonize over what went wrong or let embarrassment halt their progress? No, they simply get up and go on their way. 

A vital reason that children are such good learners, according to researchers, is that they “explore” a wide range of solutions to a problem, rather than “exploit” the solutions they already know. This comes with more potential errors but also more learning. 

Take a class

If there’s something to be learned, chances are there’s an online video somewhere showing you how. But I recommend learning with others in a class. It provides structure, discipline and motivation. 

Learning with other people has additional benefits; in a “learning community,” we not only learn from others who might be better than we are, but we also learn by teaching others who might be worse than we are at something. We even learn from seeing the mistakes of others.

Be a scientist

“In science,” the mathematician Richard Hamming writes, “if you know what you are doing, you should not be doing it. In engineering, if you do not know what you are doing, you should not be doing it.” 

In our jobs, we’re engineers. We really don’t want — particularly as middle-aged people — to take huge risks or venture into the unknown. But taking up something new, in our spare time, is our chance to be scientists — to mess around, to explore, to have fun. Don’t treat some new pursuit as another job; this means giving yourself permission to be mediocre. 

“Start by considering new work to be of a different, less exacting type,” Silicon Valley entrepreneur Paul Graham writes. “To start a painting saying that it's just a sketch, or a new piece of software saying that it's just a quick hack. Then you judge your initial results by a lower standard. Once the project is rolling, you can sneakily convert it to something more.” 

Start by calling yourself a dabbler. Who knows where you might end up?