Learning to be a Beginner

Learning to be a beginner

I thought I was coming to Vancouver to learn UX design, but what I now realise is that I had to come here to learn to be me again.

By Tom Lancaster

When I made the decision to move to Vancouver I had been doing more or less the same thing for 10 years. I was an assistant director in film, TV and commercials and while each job was unique and had its own challenges, the daily grind was more or less the same – either putting out fires on set, or looking for and worrying about where the next gig would come from.

I was stagnant. Miserable. I knew something had to change but I had no idea what to do or how to do it. I was really good at being a 1st AD, but I couldn’t see how that would translate into any other job. I knew that I would be able to do almost anything if I put my mind to it, but where to begin?

Looking back now it had been years since I had really learned anything for the first time. In both my job and all my hobbies I was refining, perfecting, tweaking, but I wasn’t learning anything new.

“I had forgotten how to be a beginner.”

In 2018 I made the decision to study UX design, and to do it in Vancouver, a place I had always been drawn to, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on. I’ve written about how important the change of context was in discovering my purpose, but there is another important piece of the puzzle.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but deciding to go back to school had a bigger impact on my life trajectory than what I chose to study, for a very important reason.

It put me into beginners mind.

For the first time in years, I was curious. Fascinated. In awe and wonder about the things I was learning (and relearning) about people and the world. I became curious about myself, about the challenges I faced.

Back in london, I had been reading a steady stream of self help books, trying to dislodge my depression and find some kind of meaning in life. But nothing stuck. It all went in one ear and out the other. I had forgotten how to learn.

When we first start a new thing, we are primarily thinking. What do I need to do? who can help me? what equipment do I need? How does this piece connect with this one? What do I do next?

This is a phase of curiosity, of openness to new information. Of connecting dots. It is the focus of this article, but before diving into it I must clarify the other two stages.

When we become proficient at something, our brains shift into another gear. We move into doing. In this stage, we have the basic skills to do the thing, but it is still a very conscious process. There is still a lot of thinking involved in the doing.

When I learned to drive a car, at first I was scared. This huge machine, surrounded by other huge machines, travelling at speed through tight spaces…how can this not go wrong? Then there was talking with the instructor – this pedal makes you go forward. But you need to engage the clutch otherwise the engine will stall. Etc etc.

At first, I was horrible. Stalling the car every 5 seconds. Lurching all over the place. No idea what I was doing. Then I started to get it. Clutch goes all the way down, hand brake comes off, accelerator down just enough, and off we go. Each step of the way required a lot of doing. It was exhausting. So much cognitive effort for every step of the process.

Now, however many years later, I simply AM a driver. I can get in the car, more or less fall asleep and end up at my destination 300 miles away. This is the stage of being. Everything is stored in muscle memory. I don’t need to think about any part of it.

So back to the thinking part.

Because I was back in learning mode, suddenly I saw the whole world differently, through the lens of curiosity. I became fascinated by everything. I started reading more – first about design but then about all kinds of subjects.

I became curious about my own challenges, and started to work through them from a different mindset. Things started to stick, and I started to notice dramatic shifts in my being.

“I thought I was coming to Vancouver to learn UX design, but what I now realise is that I had to come here to learn to be me again.”

It turned out that UX design wasn’t my dharma. Nor digital marketing, which was my next endeavour. But UX was necessary to get to Marketing, and marketing was necessary to get to coaching. And coaching IS my dharma.

In the first 18 months of being in Vancouver I had learned to operate in three new industries, having been stagnant for 10 years. It was thrilling!

Putting myself into beginner mindset paved the way for a whole new way of being to show up. A way of being that is much more an expression of who I AM than I have ever experienced before. It feels REALLY good.

I decided to plunge in the ocean every day in January. Again, I had no idea what I was doing, I just went for it. And I learned so much along the way. I made new friends. Reconnected with old friends. Got on the news twice. And learned a whole bunch about cold therapy, resistance, fear and commitment.

What are you curious about? What’s been on your mind for some time but you haven’t done anything about it? What could happen for you if you followed that curiosity?

Another thing I have been talking about forever is wanting to play the saxophone. Well, it turns out that my roommate has one, and so I’m commuting to learn how to play it. This is in no small part inspired by my friend Dr. Erin Baker, as in fact this whole article was, who at the end of last year took on a mission to be terrible at things.

On day one I learned that a) I can actually make a noise with it, and b) is is basically a fancy recorder, and I was pretty damn good at the recorder when I was 8, so this should be a breeze! I look forward to sharing the journey with you!

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