I have a lot of hobbies and skills (skills being hobbies that are less fun) in which it takes years, or sometimes decades, to develop serious abilities.
While it’s really fun —and profitable — to develop deep proficiency, I’ve found it’s just as rewarding to start over and to be a complete noob. Of course, it’s rewarding in a completely different way.
But being a noob doesn’t actually mean being terrible at something. It’s more about an attitude of humility: Doing something for fun, acknowledging one’s weaknesses, and enjoying the journey of learning.
Why We Obsess Over Expertise
Generally, the idea of being an “expert” in many fields is venerated, and seen as a goal.
But in some instances, this veneration of expertise can verge on the unhealthily obsessive.
As soon as people start any “expertise”-oriented endeavour, they frequently start to ask what it would be like to be at the end. We’re so impatient!
- Language learners ask “How long will it take until I’m fluent?”
- Martial arts students wonder “How long until I get a black belt?” or “How long until I can compete?”
- And track day racers wonder “How much time do I have to spend in the slow group until I can move up to the fast ones?”
Those are just my hobbies. I’m sure you can relate from your own.
People make a lot of noise about becoming an “expert”. Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” concept is frequently cited — though it’s often a point of contention.
For example, it (usually) takes around 2-3,000 hours to get a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, a widely-acknowledged difficult rank to achieve in martial arts. And I’d suggest that defensible fluency in any language would be possible, for most people, in between 3-12 months of study for an equivalent of a normal work week of full-time study, which at its extreme end would be around 2000 hours, for one of the more difficult languages (like Chinese or Russian). (Though fluency is a sliding scale, and everyone has different challenges.)
Yes, in both of those examples, 10,000 hours would be better. But at that point, you might also be dead!
But then there are many hobbies that have no defined expertise levels and which are purely for leisure. Even if there’s a point at which you feel like “I’m good at this and feel good doing it,” you’re never given a medal or competency certificate for reading books, baking (at home), riding horses, or hiking. You do these purely for leisure, and that’s why they’re so relaxing.
So my question is: How can one pursue that feeling of leisure in doing something, without obsessing over a goal? The answer, I think, lies in forgetting about what it feels like to get to any goal.
The Difficulty of Starting Over
A number of times in my life, I’ve started over completely. I get expert status in something, then abandon it for something else. I’ve done this in both my professional life as well as my personal.
In my professional life, I’ve abandoned entire metiers and adopted others. I abandoned professional services for the corporate world; they had a lot in common, of course, but I did give up the idea of the fixed career trajectory. Later, I gave that up completely to become a writer, which is what I do now. I don’t expect I’ll do it forever (for money).
And in my personal hobbies, I’ve started over again and again and again… Every language I learn, I start from zero, relatively speaking. Every time I take on a new sport, I know nothing at first. And every time I learn to cook something different, I have to get familiar with a new set of tools, ingredients, and processes.
In most ways, starting over is daunting. If you’re good at something, you’re used to the feeling of being good — familiarity and confidence. Doing something you’re good at feels like being at home. So I totally get why someone who has spent their whole life doing one thing would be reluctant to throw it away and do something in which they’re a beginner — particularly if they’re related disciplines, like two sports, or two languages.
I had the same feeling when I was learning Korean for example. I spent years getting fluent at other languages, most significantly and relatedly (as they share some roots) Chinese, and yet in Korean here I was, unable to make basic sentences or remember simple words! I felt like an idiot.
I constantly wanted to tell my teacher: “I’m not a dunderhead! I have advanced thoughts! I just can’t express them so I’m saying something simpler. I know Chinese, you know,” as if that were relevant at all.
Many others have had the same feeling, I know. I have it in other languages, too. So how do we get past it, and enjoy being a beginner?
The key to enjoying being a noob, I find, is to let go of everything I was, to embed myself in the process, and to learn how to be a beginner.
Learning How to Be a Beginner
The thing I’ve had to learn, and which might help others, is to learn how to be a beginner. By embracing being a “noob”, I could not only learn properly without having an ego hangup, but I could have a lot more fun.
To learn how to be a beginner, there were three things I had to do.
- I had to let go of my past (and any ego attached) and start from scratch,
- I had to learn how to learn as an adult, and
- I had to learn to believe that it’s possible to become an expert in new things.
Firstly, I had to let go of my past.
This is hard for most people. It was hard for me, in other ways. If you’ve spent decades becoming a serious contender in one discipline, it’s hard to put that all to one side and be a complete rookie in another sport.
Or if you’ve spent ages learning one language, it’s hard to put that to one side and start another.
Partly, it feels frustrating, because you’re good at one thing and yet feel like an idiot in another. Nobody likes to feel like an idiot.
And partly, it feels like a waste. I’ve had this discussion with many people who want to learn another language, feeling guilty about abandoning one that they spent so many years on, despite never committing much because they had no interest.
But your Chinese teacher isn’t that impressed that you speak French; they just want to teach you Chinese. They don’t care, so you have to let go, too. The sooner you do, the sooner you can embrace being a beginner.
And what’s the point of continuing to invest in something you’re not interested in? The sooner you stop, the more time you can spend doing something you want to do.
Secondly, I had to learn how to learn — as an adult.
As a kid, I didn’t know how to learn. I just showed up to class and did what I was told. When there was a test, I tried to study for it. Nobody really showed me how (maybe they showed you how!). Nobody even showed me how to study.
As an adult, I am a little smarter, and much busier. I don’t have time for meandering sessions with no specific purpose. If I’m learning something, then I generally go look up resources to answer specific questions I have. I try things, fail at them, then go learn how to improve them.
Everyone has their own style of learning. Some learn by reading, some by listening, some by doing. Figure out your style and what works for you.
Thirdly, I had to learn that it’s possible to become an expert in new things — even things that I started late in life.
The hardest time I had to learn this was the first time. Personally, I put it down to learning Chinese, which I did at the age of 31. After that, I thought “Well, if I could learn Chinese in my thirties, then anything is possible.” Still, age may make a fool of me yet!
When all that was done, I could find the joy of being a beginner. Or, as I like to put it, of being a total f***ing noob.
The Joy of Being a Total F***ing Noob
Being an expert is great, but it comes with a lot of pressure. People expect you to be good at things and to know things.
But when you’re a total noob, you’re allowed to make mistakes, fail, and ask stupid questions.
In fact, I really like leading into any question with this: “May I ask a silly question?”
Asking if I can ask a silly question before asking a question always sets the tone. It lightens the mood. The teachers love it, because they know there are no silly questions. Also, it’s likely to be a question that’s easy to answer.
But surprisingly, I’ve learned that I don’t just get to ask “Can I ask a silly question?” as a beginner. I can ask it any time, no matter what my expertise level. This is what I mean about embracing the attitude of being a beginner.
The worst thing I can do is to let my ego believe that I can’t ask questions. For example, if I think “I should know this by now,” or “I can’t believe I don’t remember this, I have done it ten times,” then I’m overcome with useless feelings of embarrassment or failure that get in the way of me learning.
So if you’re thinking of starting again in a new thing but feel intimidated, try thinking about it in a different way: Here’s an opportunity for you to be a complete beginner. You have no baggage from your past. Nobody expects anything of you. You can make mistakes, and it won’t affect anyone. You can just explore and have fun.
Hopefully this beginner’s mindset helps someone else. The mindset of being a total noob brings me a lot of joy.