To get better at learning, learn to be terrible again

I'm Really Terrible At the Fiddle

A few years ago my lovely wife asked me if we wanted to leave the swamp-like heat and humidity of Washington, DC behind for a few years and live in the mysterious land known as Canada. I'm embarrassed to say that, even as a former US and World History teacher, who had passed my content-oriented state licensure examinations with perfect scores, I knew very little about the history and culture of our neighbor to the north, and even less in particular about our home for the next few years, the beautiful province of Nova Scotia.

Atlantic Canada in general has a unique heritage that both intertwines with and stands apart from the nearby provinces of Ontario (the region most commonly brought to mind when Americans think of English-speaking Canada) and Quebec (the province that has retained both French as their primary language, as well as a distinctive French-Canadian culture).

You might have already guessed, given Nova Scotia's direct translation as "New Scotland", that the Celtic/Gaelic influence in the region is quite strong. Indeed, in Cape Breton Island, the rocky coastal enclave constituting the easternmost counties of Nova Scotia, you might still find Gaelic speakers, and many roadside signs there present the names of towns in both English and Gaelic. Like most former colonies in North America, however, these Old World influences took on a life of their own and led to entirely new offshoots.

Like the Cape Breton fiddle tradition.

Gaelic-speaking Scots were gradually pushed out of their traditional homes in the Highlands due to both economic shifts and the aftermath of the failed Jacobite uprising (which many readers will likely be familiar with from the television drama Outlander), and many of the displaced found new homes in Cape Breton Island and northern mainland Nova Scotia. They brought with them their tradition of dance-oriented Scottish fiddle music, which has evolved over time into an energetic, percussive style of playing.

You can check it out in this TED talk video: Playing the Cape Breton Fiddle, with Natalie McMaster

I decided that our stay in Nova Scotia would be the perfect time to start picking up the fiddle - it's a rare opportunity to get to learn from people who have been brought up in such a unique tradition.

So I was starting over from zero, learning a new skill with very little context.

I do know how to read music in treble clef thanks to a few years playing brass instruments back in high school. And I know a bit of the basics of music theory as well. And actually, now that I think of it, I took a few lessons in guitar in college, but didn't get too far at all. So we'll count fiddle as my first string instrument.

And I'm sorry to report that, if there are instruments that sound passable even at a beginner level, the fiddle is definitely not one of them.

I sound really bad. The strings squeak and screech and scratch. My left hand (that is responsible for depressing the strings against the fingerboard to sound different notes) and my right hand (responsible for drawing the bow across the strings) sometimes act like they're not even attached to the same person - just flailing about uncontrollably, the physical manifestations of some left-brain/right-brain argument that I can only seem to observe from a distance. I look foolish, I'm sure!

And one day while I was stumbling through my daily practice, annoying the neighbors, and just making an absolute mess of a traditional Gaelic waltz, it occurred to me that I hadn't been this bad at something in quite a while.

How School Kills the Joy of Learning

It wasn't because I'm actually even that bad for a beginner - it's because at some point, as we grow up, we get comfortable. We go to work, we try to hide behind a facade of total competence, because we've been taught to believe that our advancement depends upon it.

Yes, you might pick up a few new skills at work - you might learn a new piece of software, or take on an especially challenging project, but so many times, we find our wheelhouse and stay put.

Having taught in different settings over the years, I think this tendency is drilled into us very early on in school - it's the fear of being exposed.

Nobody wants to be the kid who gets called on to read a passage aloud to the entire class. Especially if they're not a very skilled reader.

Nobody wants to be picked last for dodge ball, and then see the self-fulfilling prophecy play out as they're the first to be tagged out of the game.

And, conversely, everybody learns that it's the grade that matters. An outcome totally divorced from reality, and all the complexity of learning boiled down to a single metric that isn't even consistent from assignment to assignment, class to class, year to year.

So in school you learn to fear being exposed as incompetent, and to crave external validation - even if that validation seems only tangentially related to your own creative output!

You see, the problem was, when I was a teenager I was good at school. I learned how to optimize for external validation, and take classes that played to my strengths while avoiding opportunities that pushed me outside my comfort zone. I eventually became so complacent and disenchanted that I ultimately squandered much of my college education, not really understanding the point of it all anymore.

In my late 20s I decided to learn to be a programmer. There are other articles on my site if you'd like to hear the whole twisting tale, but suffice it to say it was the first time in awhile that I had tried something totally new - something I knew that I would not be good at right away.

When I started learning how to turn my thoughts and ideas into code, and how to string together objects that only existed in my mind into working software, I was in brand new territory. It was the first time, probably since I was a child learning to read, that I was doing something that I absolutely knew I would be bad at - at least at first.

But "at first" is often enough of a speed bump to make adult learners abandon the road entirely.

It's imperative to your growth that you do not let this mindset take root. You have to learn to see through the same childlike eyes that view failure as just another iteration toward success. You have to learn to be ok with being terrible again. A kid learning to ride a bike for the first time isn't worried about whether they "look like they know what they're doing." They just keep scraping their knees until it all clicks, and you can see from the look of joy on their face what the achievement of that goal is worth.

Yes, you can add to your existing skill sets, reinforce your positive habits, and do many other little things to keep yourself "competitive."

But learning to be terrible again isn't about being "competitive" - it's about keeping alive your sense of exploration and humility in the face of a whole universe of possibilities. It's about knowing that it's not only ok to not be the best - it's ok to be the absolute worst at something, and to embrace that step in your journey.

What Crazy Thing Would You Do Today if You Gave Yourself Permission To Fail?

I'm 33 years old. There are 8 year olds who can run circles around me on the fiddle. Hell - they'd laugh at me if they heard me playing!

However, I have every confidence that taking on this challenge will help me grow in other areas of my life as well. In the stressful environments of school and work, we forget to ALLOW ourselves to fail. Even in company cultures that outwardly express support for innovation and experimentation, there's that little voice in our heads telling us to stick to the sure thing - don't stray too far from what you know, lest you waste everybody's time in your folly.

In the new world of work, however, things change too quickly to let yourself ossify from a bias towards averting risk - whether that's risk of embarrassment, risk to your own reputation, or risk to your own self-image as an expert within your chosen vocation. Yes, when you try something totally new, you may find yourself to be the absolute "dumbest" person in the room sometimes. But often, that's the best place to be. It means you have that many more opportunities to learn and grow.

And in a world where the only constant is change, that's a gift.