On Being a Newb

To do list: (1) Do something that makes you feel like a NEWB, (2) look up the definition of “noob” and get your spelling right.

From the aforementioned Urban Dictionary: “Contrary to the belief of many, a noob/n00b and a newbie/newb are not the same thing. Newbs are those who are new to some task and are very beginner at it, possibly a little overconfident about it, but they are willing to learn and fix their errors to move out of that stage. n00bs, on the other hand, know little and have no will to learn any more. [Noobs] make up a unique species of their own.”

As I’m discovering and as I get older, I’m starting to recognize that “newb” feeling all too readily – and let’s be real – it ain’t pleasant.

Last year I made a promise to myself that I would try my hand at playing the drums – I’d never really played before, but it always looked like a lot of fun. I mean, how hard could it be? Sit there and whack away – right? No. Totally wrong. For my 40th birthday a few months ago my wife surprised me with some drumming lessons at a local music shop – awesome, super stoked. But now we are three weeks in and I actually feel like I am getting worse. I’m practicing three times a week and every time I think I’m getting better, I regress. This week I learned that my left hand doesn’t like taking the lead, oh and I have a really hard time disassociating my right leg from whatever my right hand in trying to do.

Hello NEWB feelings. Welcome back. I’ve missed you. 

But these feelings of frustration and anger are so normal, it’s hard to get my head around them. Have I simply forgotten what it’s like to be new at something? The short answer is YES. We all have a tendency to lean towards that which is comfortable or routine – basically, we avoid most newbish situations the majority of the time. Why? Because they make us feel like crap, our confidence levels plummet and our belief in our own abilities is a big reason we get anywhere half of the time. 

There’s more to it than just feeling uncomfortable, there’s also all those feelings of rejection and struggle. The little voice in your head that says “stop, just stop. You look like a fool.” And I have to constantly remind myself that the only person who is really worried about all this stuff, is me. Because there is a bunch of stuff I can do with a modicum of decency: like scuba diving, skiing, cooking, and (hopefully) writing. How did I get so good at all that stuff? Mostly through years and years of just blatant repetition regardless of the quality I thought I was producing. Did I ever stop and ask myself: “hey, you suck this newbie, why don’t you stop?” No. Instead, I just hummed a tune and kept on going – until years and years down the road – it looks to an outsider like a natural talent.

I have a very clear memory from when I turned 30 and I was learning how to whitewater kayak. I hadn’t been in a boat in a long time and the process was not exactly “smooth.” And I remember paddling with my friend Gareth one day and he said: “here, do it like this.” Gareth proceeded to execute a flawless entry onto the wave, surfed around beautifully and effortlessly, and then exited gracefully. I thought to myself, “oh, that looks pretty easy.” So I tried to do what he did… and spectacularly failed. But I’ll never forget how I felt immediately afterwards when I realized that’s exactly how we look and sound as teacher: we make it look easy when it is clearly not that simple. Telling people “do as I do” after year and years of practice is terrible advice. Instead we should say, “maybe if you practice everyday for 10 years you’ll look like me, for now just try to survive with your dignity intact.”

Learning to to play the drums at age 40 is not only a humbling experience (in my head I just sat down at the set and immediately sounded like John Bonham) but it has also been rather entertaining. Every time I try to play, I find myself hyperaware of what I’m doing and how my muscles seem to be actively working against my explicit instructions. As a result, I am find I have more patience with my students and their own learning processes. I find that I am more likely to lend them some space to try and fail, and then to laugh so we can try again. The end result(s) is always great, but I had clearly forgotten the uphill battle(s) that come with learning any new skill.

So be proud of being a newb. 

Wear your trials on your sleeve and don’t back down just because the going gets tough. Being a newb is not only the path to life-long learning, it’s an everyday part of living.