Revealed at last: 2 liberating secrets about being a newbie (at anything).


Secret number 1: Newbies are allowed to ‘suck’

Here is the liberating truth. If you’re a newbie, you’re allowed to ‘suck’. You are allowed to be joyfully, liberatingly bad at the activity you’re trying.

Of course, most of us don’t give ourselves this pleasure. Instead, we expect ourselves to be good at this new thing. Not just passable, you’ll notice. We want to be good.

And this is just a little bit crazy.

Think about it. You’re walking onto a tennis court for the first time in your life. You’ve seen it played, but you’ve never picked up a racquet before. You don’t know how to hit the ball, don’t know how to serve. Is it reasonable, then, to expect yourself to be able to hit backhand winners down the line in the style of Roger Federer? Probably not!

But this is what we so frequently do. I clearly remember giving up chess at age 7 after my first ever attempt at a game because I wasn’t instantly successful. I can think of other occasions where I’ve seen children and adults make similar decisions.

Can you think of a time when you’ve done something similar?

FM Alexander had just such an experience when he was trying to find a way of undoing the vocal hoarseness that was threatening his acting career. He thought that just because he’d used his vocal tract in a certain way for a prolonged period, he’d be able to change the way he used it and do the new thing just as accurately, just as easily. But it simply wasn’t the case.

Alexander realised that he wasn’t the only one to make this error, and named the phenomenon a universal delusion:

because we are able to do what we “will to do” in acts that are habitual and involve familiar sensory experiences, we shall be equally successful in doing what we “will to do” in acts which are contrary to our habit and therefore involve sensory experiences that are unfamiliar. *

Just because I can play tennis does not mean I can play badminton. Just because I can drive a car, I shouldn’t expect to be able to ride a bicycle. Just because I can play recorder to a fairly decent standard, I should NOT expect to be near-instantly performance standard on an oboe – I would almost certainly sound like I was strangling a duck.

And that would be okay, because I’d be new at it!


Secret number 2: you might be a newbie and not even realise it!

Sometimes we are really bad at recognising that we are doing a new activity. We can be fooled into thinking it’s just the same thing as something else we do successfully, when in fact it is a different activity, involving different techniques and a totally different means of approach.

I realised the full force of this the first time I picked up a renaissance recorder and tried to play some really tricky consort music with it. Yes, it’s a recorder. But it has subtly different fingerings, a different bore requiring different breathe pressure, and a different orientation of arm joints to reach the holes comfortably. It is a different activity.

This principle also cropped up just the other week in the presentation skills class I’m teaching at the moment. It is tempting to think that because we all speak to each other all the time quite successfully, that doing a presentation or a speech is just an extension of the speaking we do all the time. But it isn’t.

Just because we can all speak DOES NOT MEAN that we know how to deliver a presentation to a group of people. Talking to friends and giving a work presentation both involve talking, it is true. But the presentation isn’t the same activity. It is a different skill involving different technical aspects and completely different levels of preparation. And if a person goes into a presentation not realising that it’s a new activity and then has a bad experience, it can sow the seeds of anxiety which could develop into full-blown stage fright. And all because they’d miscategorised the presentation as something that they knew how to do.

Before you do that activity, ask yourself:

  • Do I really know what I’m doing, or are there enough ‘uncharted’ aspects to make this a new experience?
  • Have I prepared sufficiently?
  • Am I okay with not being outstanding at this activity? Bluntly, am I okay with the idea of failing?

This isn’t about reducing standards, nor is it about settling for average. This is about recognising that everybody has to start somewhere. If you give yourself the luxury of mistakes and stuff-ups, you’ll be approaching whatever it is you’re learning with an unstressed, free and creative state of mind. And this, in turn, will give you the firm foundation to learn and progress.


* FM Alexander, The Use of the Self in the IRDEAT complete ed., p.417.
Image by Qrodo photos (Flickr creative commons)