There’s a secret no one tells you when you first start doing something.
But before I let you in on it, I’ve got a question for you.
Do you remember the first time you did something you’re really good at now?
If you’re a teacher, think about the first time you student-taught.
If you’re in business, think back to when you were an intern.
If you lead a team, think back to the first meeting you ran.
Got that image freshly in your mind?
Well, here’s the secret no one tells you when you get started…
Everyone is horrible in the beginning.
Ira Glass of NPR unpacks this idea in this short video.
After watching that video, I felt sorry for my first audience. When I think back to my first sermon as a pastor, I wince. The thought of it sends shivers down my spine. It was so bad! I had seven points. I tried cramming 48 minutes of content into 25. I talked so fast that one man told me afterward, “I’m sure it was great. But you were going so fast, I had no idea what you were saying.” A couple hundred sermons later, I feel like I’m starting to make progress.
Many of us have known the sense of defeat and despair between our first try and progress. We wanted to give up because we wondered if we were ever going to be “good enough.” We wondered not when we would make it, but IF we would.
Rosabeth Kanter, a professor at Harvard Business School, once said,
“Everything feels like failure in the middle.”
(Read more here)
While many qualities can push us through the “middle”, these four qualities in particular have helped me continue to move forward (especially when I was talking so fast no one could understand me).
1. Cultivate Patience
Our ambition and drive often makes us unbearably impatient. Living in a world of high-speed wireless internet accessible on our smart phones doesn’t help. Our sense of time is horribly twisted today. We overestimate what can happen in the short-term and underestimate what can happen in the long-term. Accordingly, we put all our chips in the immediate and underinvest in the important.
Slow, steady progress is preferred to a flash of quick, unsustained momentum. This approach is counter-intuitive. But we will never become patient if we are bound to the kind of hyper-active multi-tasking which constantly tempting us.
Discovering who we are and getting better at our work can be awkward, even comical. Writer Logan Pearsall Smith put it this way nearly 100 years ago, “Don’t laugh at a youth for his affectations; he is only trying on one face after another to find a face of his own.” Give yourself some grace and be patient.
2. Commit to be a life-long learner.
If none of us start out well, we must adopt a learning posture. At one time, we knew nothing about our craft. We read all we could, listened to others, and studied those we admired in order to get better.
If you’re just starting out, own your season as an apprentice. Accept the fact that you can learn from anyone (including bad models), people you don’t like and with whom you disagree. Some of the best leaders I’ve learned from led poorly. Some of the best communicators I’ve learned from often miscommunicated.
Sadly, we often abandon this learning posture as we get older and more seasoned. We stop learning and only teach. When we only teach and never learn, we begin drawing down an emptier and emptier bucket until there is nothing left to share. Never stop learning.
3. Remain open to input
In my college speech class, I can remember the pain incurred by reading reviews of my speeches. Little did I know this was about to be a daily or weekly experience for decades to come as a pastor.
When we begin, we need loads of input from seasoned experts. If we’re writers, we need editors to clean up our prose. If we’re singers, we need vocal coaching and help with presentation. If we’re leaders, we need consultants and coaches to reveal blind spots and growing edges.
The truth is we always need feedback and coaching. Don’t abandon the habit of asking for help to improve. The hunger which drives us to get input should keep open to input as our experience grows.
4. Be courageous!
Fear never goes away. At least it hasn’t for me. Even wildly “successful” people in my fields (writing and pastoring) tell me it hangs on as the years pass. Therefore, we must develop courageous habits. Courage does not wait for fear to diminish but acts anyway.
As Ira Glass states in the video above, we start with excellent taste in consuming the work of others. In that season, it takes less courage to critique others than it does to create ourselves. We must choose the more courageous path of creating rather than criticizing. The legacy of creativity is far longer than the shadow of criticism.
In fact, creating something new is the best way to criticize. It actually offers something new to the world and it turns our observation into an offer that helps others. Be courageous enough to do your best even when your work isn’t the best.
In one of his famous pamphlets, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy wrote, “And yet in our world everybody thinks of changing humanity, but nobody thinks of changing himself.” On the road from beginner to expert, our own transformation and growth will be the fuel that pushes us through The Dip and into a thriving, successful future.