I’ve just begun learning how to play the violin. It is something I’ve wanted to do for most of my life. Even as a child, when my parents decided that all of us children had to learn an instrument, violin was my secret desire. But being the eldest, I was given the choice of those instruments we already owned. Dad had a clarinet, Mom a piano. I chose the clarinet since the piano came with my mother as my teacher!
Of course, by the time my sisters were entering the musical fray, my parents’ frugality had been worn down. One sister chose the flute, the other the violin. That turned my own violin fancy into a fantasy.
Now, in my 50s, I have begun.
There is something freeing about learning something completely new. My degree of ignorance about the violin, or any string instrument is profound. Profound enough that I am more than I beginner. I am painfully incompetent. So much so, that whenever I lift the violin from its stand, my cat, Violet, jumps up with a look of alarm, and runs away; usually into a closet.
But this new domain of knowledge is enervating in its novelty. It has been a revelation to me that not only do the strings correspond to notes, but that by changing the positions on the left hand, it’s possible to duplicate notes with a slightly different tone. This is all new, and I am inching my way toward mapping it into my brain.
I’ve heard people describe their own learning curve as “humbling”. Yet to be humbled you need a frame of reference— someone or something that is so superior your own humility is provoked in comparison. When you are truly a complete novice, being humbled does not apply. It’s non-existent because there is no relevant point of reference.
When my violin teacher shows me something by playing his own violin, I am not humbled. Why? Because it is obvious that he is doing something completely different. His activity is in a different universe from mine.
The violin and its technique is disorienting. It’s a bit like mistaking air for a chair or a stick. In contrast, he is creating magical sound with an instrument that appears to be part of his body.
Like most adults, I am fairly competent at the things I do regularly. Whether swimming, writing, coaching, consulting, or baking. Maybe not excellent, the best or even noteworthy, but competent.
Think about your own life. Aren’t you competent in most of it? In your parenting, coding, financial analysis, or carpentry? You are not a complete novice.
We are handicapped by our own ability. Once competent, we compete and compare. [click here to tweet]
Perhaps we only compete with ourselves, or in the case of our professions, with others in our company or office. In athletics we use measurable goals as standards of comparison. Or we compete and compare ourselves to a previous accomplishment, our teammates, the runner coming up behind us or a writer whose articles command hundreds of thousands of readers.
They are all frames of reference that may flatter us or humble us. Unless you are utterly lacking in any ego, you are competing even if not explicitly. Competition is implicit even when we try to ignore or deny it.
Competence brings competitiveness.
Compete and Compare
Competition is not bad. It drives us. It creates a standard by which we can judge and be judged. It gives us milestones toward which we strive. It undergirds our economy.
It can be fun, motivating and can improve our performance. But it also displaces the experience of being a beginner, and all that comes with it.
As a total beginner we feel free and full of wonder. The struggle to absorb new knowledge and mental models is joyful. We are returned to the excitement of learning that we felt as children. And instead of competition, we only feel anticipation of the next piece of the puzzle.
We do this with people too. It starts off innocent and untarnished by judgment. New people start off as a sort of accordion file that we slowly fill and file with understanding of their personalities, histories, mannerisms, and speech patterns. A new person is a new world.
But that experience is ephemeral. No matter the activity or relationship, eventually we will convert it into the familiar. We become jaded. The wonder fades and our assessments intrude.
As I become more competent on the violin — even if only being able to play the most elementary tune —the competitiveness and comparisons will begin. Slowly, the amazement will fade, and it will be replaced by striving and often, self-criticism.
As children, we have no awareness of our comparative ignorance. We are innocent. We cannot know that our bottomless well of wonder will wane. Our excitement about expanding our own universes will go with it.
Every now and then, something amazing happens between the screeching emissions from my violin. A clear and pure sound emerges. When it does, I am elated and mystified. What did I do? How do I do it again? But it is gone. Like a momentary flash of heat lightning on a summer night – vanished so fast you aren’t sure it was ever there.
My mission is to save the experience of surprise and hunger; to etch every thought, sensation, and emotion into my memory. I am trying to capture and keep this moment.
Can we bring our novice mindset to our existing relationships and competencies? If we could, would it give us that same joy?
Have you ever tried to memorize your own beginner mindset –the real novice state-of-mind, and bring it with you?
This is an experiment, and one I dearly hope will yield fruit. While the experience is still fresh, I am trying to transfer it beyond the music stand, to my work and relationships. Part of this practical experiment is imagining different ways to do my work and relate to my friends and family. One tactic is trying out novel settings, routines, and conversations. All in the hope that the anticipation of a new discovery.
Instead of writing in my office, I’ve been taking my dog to the park where I can work at a picnic table and feel the breeze. It alters my perspective.
Instead of resorting to texting, I’ve been calling friends and family. That richer medium feels like a reimagining of my relationships.
And of course, adding a violin to my coffee table, and practice to the first part of my daily routine, has transformed my mornings.
Where in your life could you bring that naïveté and wonder? Imagine the remarkable transformation of living — and of relationships, learning and work. That is what I am imagining, and I hope you may try it too.