Beginner Mind v.s. The Wall

(photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Enquirer)

I’m a notorious quitter. As an adult, I’ve started a million projects that I’ve never seen through. Learning to play piano. Writing a book. Mastering surfing. I’ve gotten a decent amount of the way through these and many other endeavors, but the second I’ve hit my “limit” I’ve found a way to let them wither on the vine. While diving into a new activity, I seem to find joy and splendor in the simple act of trying something new. But, the second the endeavor begins to feel complex and progress plateaus, my frustration often bests my curiosity.

I know a number of “grown-ups” who feel the same way. While a great number of us are in constant search for a new hobby, mastery or even simple competence elude us. In my experience, I think this stems from my childhood: as a kid my brain felt hyper plastic and adaptable. New skills came easy, and progress almost felt like an exponential journey. I started learning classical guitar at eight years old, and kept making consistent headway for at least six years before any external resistance. As a man in my mid-thirties, I still soak up basic skills like thirsty sponge, but after a few months of eager learning, my knowledge seems to flatline. How do we bust through these barriers and get to the goals we enacted?

The main issue I see with myself — and I’m sure it applies to countless others — is that my “beginner mind” disappears quickly. Yes, as children we have sharper brains ready for constant learning (and our souls haven’t yet been destroyed by infinite bills and bitter disappointments!), but our mindset also naturally bent towards curiosity over certainty. And even more importantly, I used to not worry so much about whether I was “good” at something or not. Somewhere along the line, I lost my willingness to be a perennial student. Instead, I find myself slinking back to my comfort zone, and my areas of prior knowledge in a safe cocoon away from challenge, determination, and growth. The need to be perceived as “good” or “great” at something has ironically stifled my ability to achieve that standard in any new endeavor. Instead of turning up joyfully and seeing where the learning tide might take me, the inner critic kills my journey just at the point where I should put my head down and keep charging forward.

For my fellow sports fans out there: you most likely know that James Harden was recently traded to the Philadelphia 76ers where he will pair up with fellow All-NBA talent Joel Embiid. Joel (for my non-sports fans), is easily one of the ten best people on the planet at one of the absolute most popular sports (basketball) in the entire world. In fact, he’s favored to win the MVP award in the NBA this year by a decent margin. So why would he need to take advice from anyone? If he is already the best, what else is there to learn?

In the first practice Joel had with Harden, footage leaked on the internet of Joel practicing Harden’s most famous basketball move — a unique take on the step-back jumper. Literally the first day he had a new teammate in town, Joel’s curiosity took over and he demanded to learn something he did not already know. He even tried it in the next two games he played. The first time, he failed miserably and got called for a blatant traveling violation. Instead of giving up in shame, he pulled the same move the next game and drained a beautiful arcing jumper over a befuddled defender. Call me crazy, but I have a hunch that’s exactly why he is arguably the best athlete in the world this year. Despite being at the absolute pinnacle of his field, his beginner mind is still alive and thriving.

I’m striving to be more like Joel this year. While I wish my brain had been wired like his in my 20s and early 30s, the whole point of being an eager beginner is that we can ALWAYS be one. There’s a contagious virus in modern society of crippling self-judgment and criticism. What could happen if we just showed up and learned?

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Just a very tall human occasionally unearthing joy and wonder amidst the chaos of life

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