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The Secret No One Tells You at the Beginning

May 26, 2015

Boy looking into distance

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 fame unpacks this idea in the short video below. (If you’re not seeing it, click here).

https://vimeo.com/24715531

I feel sorry for my first audience

When I think back to my first sermon, I wince. The thought of it alone sends shivers down my spine. It was bad. SO. BAD. I had seven points. I tried cramming 48 minutes of content into 25. I talked so fast that one of the guys in the audience said, “I’m sure it was awesome, 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. With 11 years of slow progress behind me, I’ve been thinking about what it takes to find your way and develop your voice within the thing you’ve been created to do.

We feel like giving up in the middle

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.”

Many of us give up too early and miss out on the gift that comes to those who persevere. I’ve reflected recently of how staying with something can lead to great transformation.

While there are many qualities needed to push 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).

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 here either. 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 momentum. This kind of thinking is counter-intuitive and very difficult to cultivate. 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.

Learner

If none of us start out well, we must adopt a learning posture. We all once knew nothing about our craft. As a result, we read all we could, listened to others, and studied those we admired so we could get better.

If you’re just starting out, then 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. We must never stop learning.

Open to input

In my speech class during my freshman year of college, 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 writers and editors to clean up our prose. If we’re singers, we need vocal coaching and help with presenting ourselves well. If we’re leaders, we need consultants and coaches to reveal blind spots and growing edges.

The truth is we always need input, feedback and coaching. Get used to it in the beginning and never 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.

Courage

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 acts in the face of fear. 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 spite of the fact that our creative ability in that area is far from excellent. 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.

We’re all in the middle of some kind of do-over

You may not be at the beginning of your professional life or even know “what you want to be when you grown up.” Maybe you’re in the middle of a do-over and you feel you’re starting from scratch again. You could be in the place where you realize you’ve been coasting and you need to go back to what got you on this path in the first place.

When I launched this blog, I began with the purpose of helping people overcome fear and embrace hope and courage. It was my chance to call a do-over. I’d been blogging for six years and I still didn’t see a lot of progress. The four qualities above – patience, learner, open to input, and courage – help me show up to do my work. They drive me to grow as a writer.

If you’re in the middle of a do-over or you want to call one today, then do it! Face your fear and be courageous!

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