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The Beginner’s Gift

toddler playing in the woods
Photo by Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

This article is part of a series on “Learning About Learning.”


Have you ever felt overwhelmed at the beginning of a project? Or frustrated trying to explain something to a new team member? Beginnings are not easy, especially for those of us who get our energy from completing things. But beginnings are precious; they hold an essential but fleeting treasure—the ability to see things with fresh eyes.

I was walking down the street one day and ahead of me was a two-year-old with his mother in tow. As you probably know, toddlers don’t walk in a straight line; they meander. This one was no different. Suddenly he crouched down and picked up a quarter. Sweet! He found some money.

But what he did next astounded me. He stood up and walked over to the door of a business office and held up his quarter to the door. Then he was off on his way again.

Curious, I went over to the door. There in the middle of the logo, was a circle exactly the size of a quarter. How in the world did this child see all that from across the sidewalk? This is the gift of the beginner.

We live in a world that values competence and expertise. These are indeed essential qualities for creating a world that works. But just as essential is the willingness to be a beginner, to step into the unknown with all its uncomfortableness and possibilities.

A child blithely dances through a life of beginnings. But as the responsibilities and pressures of growing up increase, the stakes become higher and beginnings take on more weight. Sometimes they can be downright unnerving, especially when you’re expected to also be competent. Beginnings can feel like walking into a dark room: you know there’s stuff in there somewhere, but you don’t know where until you stumble over it.

As a writer working for clients, I’ve spent a lifetime in new beginnings. Over the years, patterns have emerged. What I’ve learned is that the feeling of being overwhelmed is just simply part of the territory. It doesn’t last and it has value. Here are some suggestions for navigating new beginnings—either for yourself or when helping someone else.

Value the First Look

When I’m new to something, I don’t know what’s important to pay attention to, so I pay attention to everything. Uncomfortable as it is, these beginning moments are precious. Never again will I see this territory with fresh eyes. As a result, I see things other people miss or take for granted. I see things out of context because, for me, everything is out of context. I see the objects themselves first, without their layers of meaning.

Listen for Powerful Questions

If you find yourself at a beginning, don’t panic. Take a deep breath. Pay attention to the questions that come up—they are the fundamental questions that form the basis of understanding this new domain. Why do the people use these particular words to describe something? (Especially when the words don’t seem to fit.) There’s a reason for making this choice. Can you find out what it is? How do things get done here? Why they done in this particular order or with this particular process? What wisdom led them to adopt this practice?

Sometimes I find out why things are done the way they are. Sometimes the “why” was answered so long ago everyone’s forgotten what it was and I’m left holding the question. Sometimes it’s important to just sit with these questions. The answers will come over time. And sometimes the answers never come at all… but understanding does.

Allow Order to Emerge

There’s a sorting out period in the beginning when you’re trying to figure out what is happening and how it happens. Eventually I grab hold of a thread that I do understand and start weaving things together. My mind starts sorting and categorizing and making sense of the jumble of information coming at me. “Oh! I remember this piece! And this one looks like one of those over there. Yes! That fits.”

Slowly the jumble of pieces starts to form patterns. Watch how shapes and colors emerge as things start to fit together. Eventually a coherent picture will start to form out of the mess of random bits.

Cherish the Beginning

Value these first moments. Capture what you see in some form. Don’t lose that first look at things. It’s a precious view and you only get one chance at it. What do you see when everything is new, before it all becomes normal to you?

The next time you are faced with a beginning, or standing next to someone at a beginning, honor the courage it takes to face unknown territory. Cut yourself some slack. Value the gift of fresh eyes. Take a deep breath and plunge in—it will all make sense.

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