The Ship That Sailed
I have been learning how to play the guitar. I really wanted to play when I was younger, and tried briefly – and unsuccessfully – to teach myself how to play with a book. As I got older, I sometimes felt jealous of people in my life who knew how to play the guitar. I was jealous that they chose to learn guitar when they were younger, that they had natural musical ability, and that they had the wherewithal to actually sit down and practice. I figured that for me, a congenitally arrhythmic adult who never had guitar lessons, that particular ship had sailed.
But last year, something clicked for me and I realized that if I wanted to play the guitar, I could just go ahead and learn. It’s a simple idea – that if I wanted to know something, I could go about learning it – but I have to admit that in the moment the idea felt entirely shocking and revolutionary.
So, long story short, I borrowed a friend’s guitar, did a quick internet search, found justinguitar.com, and got down to jamming out.
Or rather, I got down to watching several videos explaining the parts of the guitar, how to hold a guitar pic, how to get a guitar in tune, and how to strum. A few days later, I got down to learning the A, D and E chords. Then I got down to playing them over and over again in painstakingly slow succession until I built up some callouses on my fingertips. And then, over weeks of practice, some speed.
Truth be told, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be waiting in a long line to see me at the Grand Old Opry any time soon. But, I now get to have the pleasure of learning a song, playing it on the guitar, and belting it out at the top of my lungs during carefully chosen parts of the day when my neighbors are not home.
I also have the pleasure of experiencing myself improving at something – a concrete daily reminder that we are all capable of growth and change.
Willingness to Begin at the Beginning
One of the things that has been extremely vivid to me in the experience of learning the guitar is how much willingness we have to exhibit in order to allow ourselves to be novice at something. Justin, my internet video guitar teacher, is very adamant about spending time in each practice session just working on the basics – chord changes, listening exercises and practicing with a metronome. But I don’t always want to! Sometimes I just want to play one of the songs that I can already play with some modicum of musicality. Over and over again.
What’s been especially interesting to watch is that inevitably, when I focus for too long on the thing I’ve already made progress on, I stop making progress. So if I want to keep going, I have to get myself back to the basics, like learning a new version of the F chord and playing A minor / F / A minor / F / A minor /F over and over and over and over again until I can make that chord change smoothly.
Without allowing myself to fumble and lurch, my skill set and my confidence don’t grow.
If “Fumble/Lurch” Then “Competence/Confidence”
This is as true in other tasks of life as it is in learning a new instrument. How often have you felt like you don’t have the confidence to do something, but when it really comes down to it, you just literally don’t know how? This could be in any kind of process, from not knowing how to start a conversation with someone at a networking event, to not knowing how to self-soothe when you’re panicking, to not knowing how to soothe a child who is crying, to not knowing how to how to write a long research paper.
Of course competence is not the only solution to confidence. Many of the people who come to see me for help healing from shame and fear related to their worthiness or felt sense of competence are actually extremely competent in many measures of their lives. In these cases, the work of skill-building is more around exploring expectations and managing emotions then getting better at the thing itself.
At the same time, many people have experienced such high levels of confusion, anxiety and shame around a particular life process – take for example interpersonal situations – that they are actually missing some skills, like how to ask questions, how to meet someone new, how to gracefully end a conversation, or how to ask for things or say no in a way that is effective.
They aren’t missing skills because they have some defect at the core of their personalities, but rather because they weren’t able to learn the skill at a younger age. Maybe there was no one in the family to teach them, or maybe there were painful or distracting internal or environmental experiences that prevented them from learning.
So while competence is not always the answer, there are probably instances for each of us where part of why we don’t feel confident about something is because we literally haven’t learned how to do it yet. And now, as adults, sometimes we are so scared of being “found out,” that we don’t take the risk of admitting how little we know, and going about learning.
But what if it doesn't have to be that way? What if we could just start now, and then in a few months or years, have competence? Might the promise of a bigger world make it worth it to fumble through the frustration and embarrassment that come with not being expert... yet?
So I’ll invite you to get curious about your own experience in this arena. What is it like for you to be novice at something? When was the last time you allowed yourself to really articulate how much you don’t know about something? And to have the willingness to do research, ask someone else how they do it, or watch how other people are doing it? When was the last time you allowed yourself to practice a new skill, to sit with yourself during the period of time when it’s just not smooth yet?
Are there areas where you are both competent and confident? Areas where you are actually extremely competent, but lack confidence in yourself? Areas where you are confident but could benefit from shoring up your levels of knowledge and skill?
Is there something new that you want to learn because it sounds fun? Or helpful?
And what does it mean to you to hold yourself with grace and compassion when you do allow yourself to be novice at something? How do you find gentle humor in your mistakes, and then learn from them? How do you encourage yourself when you get frustrated with not being already expert at something? With what kind of voice do you use to remind yourself to practice your chord changes when all you want to do is play Wonderwall over and over again?
Posting with the hope for more play, exploration, learning and healing.