Going against all the advice I am about to give you, I almost didn’t write this piece because I decided that it was too late to start. You see, I wanted to share this essay on January 1st as a timely and inspirational essay to capture the spirit of the New Year, and as a way to mark my own commitment to posting a new blog piece here each month. But when it was suddenly the end of January and I hadn’t written anything yet — I threw in the towel, despite never even having metaphorically reached for it in the first place.
But then (while procrastinating on another task) I found myself returning to the idea of what it takes to be a beginner and realized I needed to take not only take my own advice but to share it as well.
As a self-taught artist, whose career began accidentally on an otherwise unremarkable subway ride home, I consider myself a bit of an expert on the matter of beginning. But before I tell you that story, let me first tell you the most important thing you need to know about how to be a beginner.
Are you ready?
Ok, here it is: To be a beginner, you must start.
Wait, wait, wait! Please don’t close this tab! I promise I will expand on this idea and that I’m not doing my best imitation of some mountain-top monk who rewards your treacherous climb for knowledge with an infuriatingly simple reply that surely could have been revealed to you at sea level.
But back to my story for a moment…
I accidentally started Drawn On The Way (which ultimately led to my current career as an illustrator) while commuting home on the subway one night. I was not a trained artist — in fact, I’d never even tried to sketch anyone before. But, tired of staring at a screen, I took out the blank notepad I had stashed in my purse along with a stolen pen from the office supply closet at work and I looked up for inspiration.
An older gentleman in a rumpled three-piece suit caught my eye and I sketched him, not knowing that in the midst of my evening commute, I had started what would become a daily live-sketch project that would teach me how to draw, generate thousands of sketches and introduce me to people from all over the world.
If I’d never taken out that sketchbook, I probably would still believe that I couldn’t draw and I probably wouldn’t be writing this essay. But I did start, and then I never stopped.
And that brings me to my next piece of advice on how to be a beginner: Once you have started, don’t stop.
And here’s my advice on how to do that (in one easy, and two hard steps).
Follow The Fun:
When you first begin, you will discover that you enjoy this new thing, you just love it! (Unless the new thing you’ve started is something awful, like math, in which case, just feel free to just stop right away). The new thing you’ve started will be very fun, and you will want to keep doing it. Remember this feeling, and chase after it.
If you keep following the fun, you’ll soon encounter two large hurdles in the way of your joyful path. Be prepared to be a bit brave and very patient if you want to keep up with your new friend, fun.
Embrace Your Failure
The first hurdle to overcome is one you likely already know, it’s your inner critic. This is the voice that tells you everything you do is dumb, or bad, or not good enough. The inner critic will challenge your feeling of fun — it will tell you to stop having fun and start feeling bad.
The inner critic is a jerk.
When I first began drawing on the train, I was having lots of fun. The stakes were low and I found it to be a joyful secret project. But soon, that feeling of pure joy began to be contaminated with the loud and insistent thoughts of my inner critic. Though I am a perfectionist and as such, I often wholeheartedly agree with my nasty inner critic, for some reason, I immediately felt protective of the newfound fun that drawing provided to me. And so, I made a deal with myself that I wasn’t going to let my inner critic stop me. I made a vow that when my inner critic started up with taunts like, “You’re so bad at this! OMG that doesn’t even look like the person you’re drawing! Oh boy, I hope no one else can see what you’re drawing …” I would talk to it like a naughty child. I simply say (and I use the present tense here, because I still do this), “Alright, if you can’t behave and act nicely, then we can’t draw today. I’m going to close the sketchbook and you’ll just have to sit here and find something else to do.” That usually works pretty well. And if it doesn’t, if the critic is too loud, then I know that today is not the day to push, but that tomorrow will be another good day to look for the fun again.
The inner critic will try to stop you from being a beginner because it thinks that being a beginner is embarrassing. The inner critic doesn’t know that “not knowing how to do something” is a gift because it’s a prerequisite to “discovering how to do something.” Seen in this way, there is no failure, there is only opportunity for discovery and innovation. I cannot state this enough: there is no such thing as failure. You’re not being graded, you’re entering a process of discovery and you NEED to make mistakes to learn. The “mistakes” are the method of learning.
Your inner critic doesn’t know any of this though, but thankfully now you do and if you keep following the fun, you can detour around this obstinate roadblock.
Mind The Gap
After you meet your inner critique, you will fall into “The Gap,” and not in a cute late 80s way (thank you to everyone over 26 who laughed at that). “The Gap” is a term coined by Ira Glass, which describes the space between knowing what you would like to achieve and having the skills to achieve it. For example, on Michaelangelo’s fourth day of art class he may have dreamed of painting the Sistine Chapel with heavenly images and gilded hues, but he didn’t yet have the skill to do it.
The Gap can last for a long time. In fact, The Gap is actually where you will spend most of your time in any worthwhile, longterm pursuit. Once you become aware of The Gap, the distance between your ability and your goals may seem so great that you will want to stop. But please don’t. The Gap, though sometimes hair-pullingly frustrating is also the place where your inventiveness, creativity and yes, your new friend, Fun, will come find you. They will be the ones to lead the way by shining a light on all that was hiding inside of you, waiting to be discovered by the simple act of starting. Let them guide you and let them help you silence the inner critic who, unsurprisingly, loves to hang out in The Gap, looking for new reasons to convince you to stop.
Once you have started and decided not to stop, you will not only have mastered being a beginner, but will also have acquired the fundamental skills needed to master your new pursuit. Because mastery, in my opinion, is the natural result of following the fun and choosing not to give up.
And that brings me to my final piece of advice for how to be a beginner: Never stop being a beginner.
Another word for beginner is amateur. And this word is often thrown around as a sort of insult, a way to dismiss someone’s efforts as less than. But this is a completely incorrect use of the term. The root of the word amateur is the Latin amator, "lover," which derives in turn from amare, "to love.” Understood in light of this most ancient meaning of the word, amateurs are those who pursue their interest not for money but for love. So, if you master being a beginner, then you stand a chance of becoming an amateur. And that, is a very good place to start.