How (not?) to be a beginner


(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reproduced by permission.)

My buddy John O exposed me to this quotation, which makes me chuckle every time I think about it: “Beware of anyone with bright shiny new equipment.”The idea is that no one is more of a danger to themselves and others than the beginner.

Showing up at the climbing area, river put-in, or fishing stream with a quiver of pricey, pristine toys announces to the world that you are probably new at this.And: if those toys are too many, or too expensive — if everything is top of the line, and there are extras; if it’s all made of carbon-fiber or the latest NASA-inspired alloy — then the suspicion will be that the owner might just be one of those types who think that they can purchase competence.

So the problem is that the newbie not only doesn’t yet know what he’s doing; he also doesn’t know how much he doesn’t know. Or just how difficult, or in what specific ways it will be difficult, to achieve what he hopes and plans to do with all that gear.Hence the saying at the top. The newbie might learn; he might even become skilled; but in the meantime, it’s probably going to be messy. And it could be dangeous to bystanders. Or, as my friend Gordon the fly-fishing guide says, “There is a direct correlation between number of fish caught and humility.”

Don’t get me wong. Being a beginner is great. There’s nothing more interesting to me than being at the bottom of the learning curve, especially with an able teacher. Especially when you go into the experience remembering that, after all, it’s all new. There shouldn’t be any expectation of success, or excellence, or achievement, the first time out. That’s just setting yourself up for frustration.

Nor is good gear inherently evil or anything. There is a deep satisfaction in having progressed to the point in your chosen activity where a newer, better tool is justified. Earning that right, putting in the time and effort, and knowing that you can actually put that tool to its higher use makes that next small step toward mastery keenly rewarding.

However, when we make equations in our head like “gear = success,” or even more dangerously, “success in business/life/something else = success at this new thing,” that’s when we are liable to be knocked flat. The gods don’t like shortcuts.

When I was in my 20s, I played a lot of tennis, and considered myself pretty good. One day, my friend Channing and I arranged to meet up on the courts. He arrived wearing khaki pants and old Converse All-Stars, with an ancient, warped wooden racket resembling a Pringles potato chip.As you’ll probably guess, Channing proceeded to utterly thrash me. His racket didn’t keep him from putting the ball anywhere he chose, with speed and pace.

So it’s not, finally, about the gear. It’s about time on the water, on the court, in the field. That new thing might or might not make you better — it’s using it, regularly and with attention and humility, that counts.Meanwhile, you might want to rub a little dirt on it.