week twenty: never not a novice

Screen Shot 2014-02-11 at 8.23.02 PMForget super speed, or super strength. Forget invisibility, agility or telepathy. There was a time in my life (let’s call that time yesterday) when, if given a choice of superpowers, I would have chosen super intelligence. And not just smart, but a few hairs shy of god-like omniscience. Why? Because I’ve always hated being a beginner.

Being a beginner means being curious and engaged. That’s great. But it also means being vulnerable and making (then making up for) all kinds of big, awkward mistakes. Ever since I was a kid, my attitude toward novicehood has been an uncomfortable one. I hated the piano lessons that seemed to exist solely to prove I couldn’t play the piano. I loathed the diving team practices that publicly displayed how bad I was at diving. And then there were my classmates who willingly raised their hands to ask questions. I never understood what kind of crazy person would volunteer their ignorance that way. Instead, I sat on my hands and studied enough to do fairly well on tests. I nodded vaguely at the edge of conversations, hoping to get the gist of things without having to ask what or who or why. I sat quietly to the side and observed enough to follow (or willfully disobey) the ever-shifting social cues of growing up.

As an adult, this troublesome relationship with being a beginner has resulted in a wide array of things I don’t know how to do and have refused to learn. I’m a little more upfront with my ignorance these days, but correcting it is still a struggle. I mean, I had to make a whole blog project out of doing new things just to force the issue. As demonstrated a few weeks ago, I’ve got no idea how to buy, cut or cook vegetables. I also don’t know how to do basic maintenance on my bike or my car or my house. My knowledge of history (and science and art and…) is full of broad, deep gaps. All these gaps could be filled in, at least partially, by accepting my novicehood and the inevitable mistakes that accompany it.

Enter, The Hand Eye Supply Curiosity Club. Hand Eye Supply is a store that sells work clothes and design books and safety glasses. An eclectic inventory, but all of it carefully chosen. Periodically, in a back room behind the store, people are invited in to give presentations on an equally eclectic array of topics. Here is the pledge read by the hosts at the beginning of the lecture and listed on their website:

Ex Curiositas, Scientia. We pledge to learn without prejudice in pursuit of our mutual goal: perpetual noviceship. We admit that it is impossible to know everything about anything and thus we remain perpetually curious and perpetually novice.

A younger me would have been embarrassed by this pledge. Perpetually curious? Sure, that sounds nice. But perpetually novice? That sounds like hell.

Last night, however, it was exactly what I needed.

On my way to the lecture I was feeling sad and defeated. Okay, I admit it. I was moping. Business has been slow, so slow that I had no clients whatsoever that day. Things have been quiet for months and though I’ve grown accustomed to a certain amount of ebb and flow, as the slow weeks continued, my confidence took a dive. Despite 17 years as a massage therapist, I started to wonder if the jig was up, that somehow my clients had finally figured out that I was a fraud, a novice pretending to be an expert. I’d barely been out of the house in days due to snow, ice and lethargy. Maybe the lecture would offer a spark of encouragement.

The presenter was Amanda Wall-Graf, a furniture designer who started out knowing nothing about woodworking whatsoever and was now, ten years later, running her own business full time. She was there to talk to us about The Power of the Hustle: Passion, community and creativity in a town where you’re a dime a dozen. She was a wonderful, friendly and succinct presenter. She had embraced her own noviceship by cold calling experienced woodworkers to ask advice, taking on challenging projects, looking to her peers for answers  or help or inspiration.  She admitted to making plenty of mistakes, and yet, surprise surprise, there she was, fully intact and fully functional. She encouraged the audience to find their worth in what they were passionate about, to seek community, to be authentic and most of all, to ask questions.

By the end of Amanda’s presentation, I felt buoyed.  Even though she’d been addressing an audience of designers, builders and artists, most of her points also applied to being a massage therapist, a writer, a person in the world. Share your passion, be honest, make friends and don’t be afraid of who, what and why.

My other option is to hold out for a nuclear reactor accident to somehow endow me with super intelligence. But honestly, knowing everything would be boring. Right? I’ll take the power of flight instead. At least that one comes with a cape.

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