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The Vulnerability of Being a Novice

I have recently taken up a new sport and experienced the uncomfortable feeling of vulnerability associated with being a novice. It is interesting to reflect on how much we need and value the feelings of comfort and familiarity that come from being an ‘expert’. How does this limit our desire to experience and learn new things?

After many years of practicing the Japanese martial art of kendo, I thought I’d try Wing Chun a Chinese martial art. With kendo I know the moves, the names of the moves, and hold my own pretty well. I occasionally take the class and see new members grappling with the basics as they battle to coordinate their body to undertake the moves. When I see this I say “relax it will come”. But over time I have forgotten these feelings and taken for granted what I have learnt over the years.

Ip Chun one of the originators of Wing Chun King Fu

However it is very different in Wing Chun. I don’t know the moves or their names, and feel completely uncoordinated and out of balance. I went to the class on Tuesday evening and was lucky to have one-to-one tuition with one of the seniors. This was great as there was detailed feedback on my stance, angle of arm, orientation of my wrist, etc. This feedback was very well delivered, an ideal mix of support and challenge, the senior said things that needed to be said in a very matter of fact way. She genuinely wanted to help me improve. There was no criticism, no holding back, if things needed to be improved I was told. My stance did need to change and improve, my arm was not at the right angle to deflect a punch. 1cm difference in a number of areas seemed to make a significant difference. But I came back home after the class thinking ‘OMG I’ve got such a lot to learn, I’ll never do it!’

Besides the effectiveness of the delivery of this feedback, another interesting thing is my whole feeling towards this new martial art. I have really struggled with the vulnerability of being a novice. Not knowing what to do, not understanding the terminology, my lack of ability to make my body move as I intended. It looks so easy when demonstrated, but felt so difficult. All of this led to a very uncomfortable feeling. This was a feeling that I had not experienced to such an extent for a long time. At times this was so uncomfortable that I wanted to end the feelings of inadequacy and frustration and move back to a comfortable place, and thought about ending my membership and chalking it up to experience. The feelings of being a novice where overwhelming and over the summer I found distractions and I missed more classes than I attended. It felt like I was in the zone of uncomfortable debate, debating with myself, or the zone of uncomfortable feelings, and wanting to exit to a safe and secure zone, hiding away from these feelings altogether.

I wonder how many other people have felt like this, and decided not to continue with something? Think about those New Year’s resolutions which last a few weeks with good intention and then old habits return, or learning a new language, or new a musical instrument, you name it. There are examples everywhere of these feelings of frustrations and lack of ability overtaking good intentions.

I have been interested in martial arts for many years, for the physical activity plus the philosophical aspect. We go to ‘practice’ sessions, we ‘train’, these phrases are interesting as it suggests a journey that is ongoing. No one reaches a final destination, no one masters these skills, the ‘practice’ simply continues.

There is a Japanese saying which states “The devil lives in perfection”, if you are striving for perfection, or for mastery, this will be a very uncomfortable journey leading only to the devil. Instead, think about ‘practice’ and an ongoing adventure of self development. Wanting to be an expert will limit opportunities and hold back a person’s potential.

I think this message can be applied to many things, to hobbies, to personal development, to careers, and to business objectives.

Being a novice and the powerful frustrating feelings associated with this are just an inevitable stage of the journey. Realising and accepting this seems to make everything feel better. Maybe I’m normal, and experiencing the same feelings as other people would in a similar situation. It is how comfortable I am to experience and stay with these feelings that will determine if I continue. If I accept and manage these feelings, I can enjoy the activity and learn. But if these feelings become too powerful, and my need to feel like an ‘expert’ is too great, I will cease. Let’s face it, we are all experts in a number of ways; I’m an expert at being me, you’re an expert at being you, you are an expert at what you do and how you do it. We grow comfortable as we develop into experts.

Referring back to Joseph Campbell’s work and the Hero’s Journey, this is the call to adventure, crossing the threshold into the unknown. Helpers and guides (coaches) join us for short periods of the journey, they support and challenge and make the journey possible.

I would encourage you to reflect on your previous experiences and how often the uncomfortable feelings of vulnerability and inability stopped you doing something? Did these feelings prevent you from even starting something? How great is your need to be an expert and surround yourself with the cosy feelings of comfort and familiarity? How does this impact on your future growth and development?

What could you do differently next week? I look forward to reading your thoughts on the Challenging Coaching Linked In discussion group.