By Mack Robertson
When we begin a new hobby, it’s easy for us to daydream about a future in which we have mastered the discipline we are studying. We have an instinct to move out of the beginner phase as soon as possible. The idea of climbing the steps of Parnassus to its summit is an appealing one, but it’s a fallacy. For true mastery is the knowledge that there is no finish line.
For the past decade I’ve been a music teacher, teaching private guitar lessons. Many of my students have been adults who have finally carved out the time to pursue a new hobby. One of the things I quickly observed of these adult students was their quickness to admonish themselves for their self-perceived slowness in progress. They were so concerned with their destination that they had forgotten to embrace the journey.
A few years into my teaching career I had the realization that I didn’t remember what it’s like to be a beginner. I had been playing guitar for the majority of my life and had forgotten the vulnerability of learning a new skill. In order to grow as a teacher, I decided I needed to step outside of my own comfort zone and become a beginner myself. In short, I wanted to learn how to learn.
Believe it or not, this was my entry into trail running. I rekindled my childhood love of the outdoors and did my first backpacking trip that eventually morphed into my discovery of trail running. Every couple of years I try to continue this study of learning by trying new pursuits. I’ve used what I’ve learned from teaching to shape my approach.
The thing I’ve learned from working with students of all ages is the stark contrast between the way children and adults approach learning. At some point in our lives, we seem to forget how to learn. We develop a rigidity incongruent with growth.
An adult treats learning as a task. Something to accomplish that they aim to do with the highest proficiency possible. We incorrectly have the notion that there is a path to mastery. If we stay the course, never deviating, we will reach our destination.
An adult student will put their heads down and muddle through exercises they hate because they have faith that it will get them to where they want to be. A young learner has no awareness of future results. They are simply playing in the moment. A child does not assign value to play. They do the thing without fear of failure and embarrassment or promise of success and greatness.
It’s easy to let our egos get in the way of our progress. When we scold ourselves for mistakes we make in learning, we create an environment that's not conducive to growth. Learning should be messy and nonlinear. We have a way of inventing a destination point and trying to draw a straight line back from there to where we are now. Then we get angry with ourselves for not being able to stick to this self-imposed ideal of progress.
The truth is, there is no destination point. The summit we see before us is not truly the summit. As we learn, grow and climb the proverbial mountain, our concept of mastery moves with us. It is only once we reach this false peak that we can see how much further we have to go. With running, and all hobbies, it’s important to remember that our progress in the discipline is a relative concept and our concern with that progress, in many instances, is counterproductive.
The word “beginner” can sound like a rebuff, but I say embrace it in all its vulnerability. When you allow yourself to be a beginner, you are giving yourself the grace to make mistakes. Making mistakes is an inseparable part of the learning process. Focus less on the results and learn to love the process. The destination is not the point of the hobby, but rather a catalyst. The journey is our true aim.