As I get older I have noticed this draw, an irrevocable desire to feel like an expert. To feel like I have mastered something. It’s partly how I want to feel about myself and partly how I want to be seen. As competent, skilled, capable. As responsible. As an adult.
This is a new sensation and I feel ambivalent towards it. On one hand, I like the fact that after years of throwing myself at anything that interested me with a distractible, frenetic energy, I finally feel ready to focus and specialise in something. Maybe by investing time, building experience and mastering something, I will make a positive contribution to the world. On the other hand, there’s an emotion that seems to go along with my ambition to be (and be perceived as) accomplished that I don’t like – a strong desire to avoid the blundering sensation of being a beginner and a fearful aversion to feeling uncoordinated, making obvious mistakes, being wrong or generally looking stupid.
In recent years I’ve noticed that almost unconsciously, I’ve started to make decisions to avoid situations where this could happen. It’s not hard. It’s almost natural. I stick to activities I feel comfortable with, honing my existing skills rather than developing new ones. This approach to life is so accepted, even valued in our society of specialisation that I almost let myself get away with it. But every now and then I am reminded that this is a cop out. As tempting as it might be to drift along in my comfort zone, succeeding by some conventional measures and enjoying the adulation of those around me, it just doesn’t sit right. And I’m the one losing out.
By staying in my element out of fear of failing or even just looking silly, I am denying myself something important: the liberation of unabashed failure, a compassionate laugh at my weaknesses and the opportunity to learn. I am replacing it with a clingy need to be perfect.
Barbara Kingsolver says it well in The Poisonwood Bible:
I’ve seen how you can’t learn anything when you’re trying to look like the smartest person in the room.
Yesterday I tried something for the first time. I surfed a kayak in the sea.
I have paddled a sea kayak before: a big, slow double kayak loaded with touring gear cruising in sheltered waters. Whales are to dolphins as double kayaks are to singles. In my single kayak I felt unstable and awkward, and looking out into the crashing waves I felt scared. After an hour or so practising strokes in the lagoon, I paddled out into the whitewash and found myself in a confusing world of loud crashing waves and movement. In the swirling whitewater I yelled at my friend. I thrashed and whimpered. I paddled desperately and found myself skidding uncontrollably along the surface of a wave towards the shore. It was not pretty.
When I was washed up on the beach I heard myself gushing, ‘did you see it? Did you see it?! I caught a wave! It wasn’t really big but I caught it and I rode it and . . .’
I was babbling but I felt amazing. I couldn’t stop the torrent of excitement. It flowed out of me along with all my worldly concerns, conceptions of adulthood and the importance of knowing stuff and being right.
I knew one thing. The art of being a beginner is one truly worth mastering.