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Blog // Artistry
May 15, 2018

How Long Does It Take To Become A Beginner

Do we become a beginner the moment we decide to try something, or does it take time to become a beginner?

In a brilliant interview, Susan Rogers, Berklee College professor and former Prince recording engineer, quotes George Massenburg as saying “You have to be in this business for seven years before you can call yourself a beginner.” In the slightly less brilliant, but equally compelling, Netflix documentary The Defiant Ones, Gwen Stefani says that when she met Jimmy Iovine, he said it would take six years for her to go from forming her new band to being ready to make an impact in the music world.

Whether it’s six years or seven, that’s a long time for overnight success.

My Japanese calligraphy teacher explained the levels students pass through while learning the art. Beginners start at level 6 (in Roman numbers), then progress through 5 to 1, then to a level that we might call zero. This process will take a few years. She said level zero was “like a black belt in martial arts; you have reached basic competence.” After that, you go up a new number series (in Japanese characters this time), where you start to express yourself more artistically.

Our whole individualistic “I think therefore I am” mindset means we tend to assume we are beginners as soon as we decide to try something. But that’s like saying you are a beginner skier just because you stood in a shop looking at skis or stared longingly at a travel poster for some snowy resort.

Being a beginner skier means you’ve strapped skis to your legs and already fallen in the snow—at least once. It means you’ve already travelled to the mountain, bought the lift pass, maybe even the ticket, and got over the anxiety of what you look like in ski attire.

Or, to put it another way, you are only a beginner after you’ve taken a risk, invested your time and money, and put your body into it.

It’s fashionable in self-help circles to talk about the beginner mindset. While the beginner’s mind is a profound idea in Zen Buddhism, the self-help versions tend to simplify things, almost suggesting we should embrace naïveté or lack of process for their own sake. This seems to be part of a bigger problem of living too much inside our minds.

Maybe we should also be talking about the beginner body as well. Being a beginner is a physical commitment. You’re not a beginner because you think about doing it; you’re a beginner because you do it, in the physical world, with real, visible actions.

This also goes deep into our own bodies. The theory of neuro-plasticity suggests our brain changes its structure depending on the activity we engage in. The brain of a trumpet player looks different to the brain of a pianist. The brain of someone who has trained in music from a young age looks different to the brain of someone who hasn’t, not because they were born that way, but because the activity created different folds and structures in the brain.

It’s why learning something new can be so hard. It’s doesn’t just feel like you are rewiring your brain; you are, literally, rewiring your brain.

Maybe we need to rethink what we mean by a beginner’s mind. Do we really wish we hadn’t invested all that effort into rewiring our brains, to the point where playing a musical instrument or strapping on a pair of skis feels instinctive? Maybe the beginner’s mind means something else.

Perhaps the beginner’s mind is more about freedom than skill. What we desire isn’t a lack of skill so much as the freedom of possibility, a wistfulness for what could be, unconstrained by rules and formulas and ways of doing things. Flow without the work, or maybe without the workflow. Perhaps we wish we weren’t weighed down by everything it took to acquire the skill—or maybe the expectations we experience, including the ones we put on ourselves, because of having them.

Accepting that we don’t become a beginner until we have acted takes some of the pressure off. I’ve met people who are very frustrated with their development because they feel like they’ve been at it a long time with few signs of progress. But when we talk, it becomes clear that while they might have bought a camera a long time ago, it wasn’t that long ago that they made their first prints or created a photo they really loved. Perhaps they haven’t been a beginner as long as they thought.

After all, you can own an instrument for a long time and not really be a musician.

It also makes it easier for us with experience to aim for the beginner’s mind. I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t play guitar. But I can remember the time I first recorded something that sounded like music. I can even re-enter that experience again and again.

Beginning isn’t just about deciding to try something; it’s about deciding to acquire skill in something. The beginner has decided to give it a go earnestly and sincerely. This seriousness, even if initial attempts might be hilariously bad, already separates beginners from those who are just trying something for laughs.

The beginner has chosen to start walking the path to mastery. The beginner is taking the challenge of learning to concentrate on a new skill.

This also reframes what we mean by the beginner’s mind. The beginner is serious and desires to be better, but is not yet weighed down by failure, or impeded by conflicting ideas on how to proceed or what to focus on. The beginner holds the journey to mastery lightly, hopefully, knowing the best thing to do is try hard and stay open minded.

Isn’t that a mindset we could do with embracing more often?

Dane Cobain 6 years ago

I think as well, one thing to bear in mind is that even when we finally become a beginner, we’re still tapping into everything that came before that. Let’s take the example of learning to play an instrument and follow that to what happens when you start to write songs. Even when you write your first song, you’re kind of distilling every song you’ve ever heard before and every piece of life experience into what you come up with.

Another example is writing a novel. I started writing my first novel when I was seventeen and I was very much a beginner, but by that time I’d already spent over ten years devouring books and I’d also learned to write and started to refine how I wrote through just the trial and error of writing notes, essays etc. at school.

Robin 6 years ago

We should all embrace a beginner’s mindset as merely thinking about doing something does not lead to mastery.

I also think that it is not only starting the learning process but making the effort to commit and continuously work at a specific skill so as to get better. A study shows that thinking a lot about doing something tricks our brain into thinking we have done it for a long period. Striving to take action is key…

fernando 6 years ago

Dane – yes, it’s a very good point. I’ve found myself in situations where people talk to me about becoming writers or photographers and they haven’t been reading widely or looking in depth at good photography and it’s very hard to advise them. So often we begin as fans and lovers of good art – that’s such a deep education.

fernando 6 years ago

Robin – yes. I recall Derek Sivers giving a TED talk about why we shouldn’t share our plans because don’t that might trick our minds into thinking we’ve already made it and so we don’t try as hard.

The beginner keeps the future in front of them.

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