“¿Qué quiere para su desayuno?” she asked, inches from my face.
I thought as quickly as I could, and managed to haltingly request a piece of toast. “Pan tostado, por favor.” It was the only breakfast food I could remember from Spanish class. It ended up being all I ate for breakfast for the next week.
Clearly, I hadn’t yet found my learner’s mind.
Each of the first few nights I spent in Bogotá I curled beneath the covers with a pounding headache. Trying to think and speak in another language was physically painful. Of the six Americans going through exchange student orientation that year, my Spanish was the worst of the bunch.
Those first weeks I spoke like a four-year-old. It was excruciating, especially for someone who took pride in her communication skills.
Despite the painful beginning, I learned a valuable lesson that year. It didn’t have anything to do with the Spanish language. It had to do with losing my fear of looking like a fool.
If you’ve ever tried to make yourself understood in a language you’re just learning, you’ll know what I mean. You’re proficient in your native language, but to learn a new one you need to start from the beginning. You have to be willing to speak like a toddler for a while.
Once you’ve learned some basic vocabulary, you might begin to speak like a young child. All the while, you mangle words and raise eyebrows and send people into fits of laughter several times a day.
It’s the public humiliation aspect to learning a new language that no one ever mentions. You’ve mastered your own language, but to master a new one you have to be willing to look like a fool for a while.
A fool with a tool
Fast forward … let’s say “many years.” As a blogger, I find it’s great to feel comfortable making a fool of myself.
Blogging is a decidedly public venue to make beginner’s mistakes in, but the only way to become an experienced blogger is to be a beginning blogger for a while.
You publish a draft post by mistake. You send out a link that doesn’t work. You discover — too late — that you’ve left out a crucial piece of information.
The only way to get past blogging mistakes is to make them in the first place.
When it comes to developing products to sell, we go through the same thing. Our first sales pages suck. The first products we develop may not sell. We cast about, trying to get a bite on our lines. Often we head home empty-handed.
And it all happens in public. But each failure gets us closer to success, even if the only thing we learn is what doesn’t work.
Baby chicks are easy to spot
Twitter is another space where it’s easy to see who the beginners are. I know, because I was one of them not long ago.
People start out talking about their breakfast. They check into Foursquare incessantly. They try to direct message someone, but post it publicly instead.
After a while though, they observe how the power users make the most of Twitter. They figure out a way to fit it into their workflow so it doesn’t consume all their time. They master the language.
Here’s the thing: if you want to master a new skill, you have to start somewhere. As uncomfortable as it is, you have to submit yourself to looking like a fool while you master the tool.
There’s no use standing on the sidelines analyzing. You can’t study your way through the beginner’s phase. You can’t strategize yourself into mastery of a new skill.
At some point, you have to dive in, make your mistakes, get them out of the way and move on from them. That’s where having a learner’s mind will help.
A learner’s mind is fearless
Children are wired to learn, which is why they make such huge developmental strides in their first years of life. In the space of a year, they go from unable to hold themselves upright to running; from crying to expressing their needs quite clearly.
They fall, shed a few tears, pick themselves up, and keep going. They don’t worry about what people will think: they don’t give it a thought. All the while, they’re learning and making great progress.
We can apply this attitude to the new skills we’re learning, too. We can expect mistakes and embrace them when they happen. We can pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, put our chins up and keep going.
Plan to fall
Blogging, Internet marketing, Twitter and all the rest of these newer technologies present great opportunities. You can learn a lot by studying them before you start to use them. You might be able to avoid some mistakes by doing that.
But you can’t vault yourself from beginner to expert just by reading about it. You have to take the first steps, and prepare for the inevitable bumps and bruises that come with making real progress.
It’s the only way to learn, really. And it’s the only way to get past plain toast for breakfast every day.
Worth it, though, don’t you think?
About the Author: Pamela Wilson helps small businesses grow with great design and marketing tips. Learn the basics with her free Design 101 e-course at Big Brand System.