The friction and freedom of learning

Some of my better photo attempts as of late.

Learning new things as an adult is only difficult because our ego is fragile. We’ve lost the mental fortitude to really suck at something. When you’re a kid and you fall off your bike 127 times before you get the hang of it, do you ever remember thinking, maybe this bike-riding thing isn’t for me? 

Maybe we did but it was a fleeting thought because we really wanted to ride the bike, we wanted the freedom, and I suppose it also didn’t really occur to us that the learning process was embarrassing.

When did being green, a newbie, a neophyte come with such distaste? I don’t know either but at some point I really began to avoid ever being truly awful at something. I once heard Marianne Williamson lament the lost art of hobbies. She said we lost the point, which was to help us to sing out in life, even if only metaphorically. We released the joy of the hobby for the goal of always excelling.

If we cannot tolerate the friction of not knowing how in this moment, we’ll never be able to enjoy the grasping of knowing more. We just won’t be able to hang in there long enough. It makes you wonder if the adage “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” was somehow truncated in its delivery and used to end with “because he was such a freaking entitled coward?”

The two things that this life needs most is humility and courage. Entitlement is rarely a good look. It smacks of the worst parts of humanity. We think that being afraid is a weakness but the real tragedy is being a coward because we don’t ever get to fear, we stop at trepidation. We won’t even try so we don’t feel the fear, we feel the anticipation of the fear and we quit. Actually we don’t even quit because we never started. We simply opt out.

If the goal is to always be great at things when we first begin we’ll never learn anything. I am experiencing this first-hand as I attempt to teach myself photography. I vacillate between excitement, frustration, embarrassment, impatience, and success, sometimes in the same 15-minute span. Why do I feel so entitled that every photo I take and download should turn out the way that I saw it while attempting to capture it? That’s hubris of the worst kind. I expect to be rewarded without doing any of the work. I am all for beginner’s luck but it’s just that, luck.

In order to learn we have to be experience humility, we have to witness and acknowledge what we don’t know so we can ask for help. Sometimes asking for help is of another person but more often than not, in this case, for me it’s making friends with Google. When life is particularly shining down on me, my learning comes from the windfall of google searches that my husband does for me. Here’s the truth, he actually is a photographer. He actually knows how to focus a camera all on his own, set his own F stop and adjust the ISO. Please do not get excited, I barely know where to find these settings on my camera much less tell you what they mean. I do, however, know now how these affect my pictures. As I get more connected with how these adjustments make the vision I have for the photo come to life, the more fun learning becomes. 

It’s even interesting that I tell you that I am learning photography as I wouldn’t dare tell you I am a photographer. Is there a test you need to pass to be able to claim that? Do I need to take a certain number of photos in my life before this moniker is officially bestowed? How will I know?

What is maybe more exciting is the realization that at any time we can become something new, add onto our lives. We can be, as they say a, multihyphenate. Why do we think we can only ever be one thing? The question itself is rather ignorant. We can only ever be human. The real question is why do we think we can only ever learn when we are young? Why do we think learning and being confronted with our lack of skill in something is shameful? Why do we believe we can’t be a writer, and a mom, and a singer, and a coach, as well as a cellist? 

We forever confuse who we are with the profession for which we are financially compensated. That is such a minute part of who we are. In most cases, the work we do to earn money to pay for our lives has very little bearing on who we are, it has very little resemblance to our essence. 

It has me pondering the next time someone asks me what I do, I think I might start saying I am a professional learner, or possibly a highly unskilled adventurer. What would it mean to be excellent at something if it was easy? Natural ability is one thing, consistent honing and refinement is a commitment. I find dedication to the process, any process, to be an admirable trait. 

When I begin to let all these new perspectives on learning come rushing in there is a sense of freedom that comes with the friction. I may not be a photographer…yet. I also may not be innately talented but I do have the ability to add to my skill set. I do have the ability to mold, adapt and to change what my brain knows how to do. Twenty years ago I knew how to write but today I know how to even better. I had to tolerate the difficulty and the discomfort of getting feedback. Often I chafed against it, my ego told me all kinds of stories about how not knowing now meant I’d never know; that I would always be bad at this. It turned out that wasn’t true.

Fifteen years ago I learned how to run far, farther than most people ever will try or attempt. I am still not an Olympian and never will be. I continue to run for many reasons, one of which is it keeps me humble. It takes some humility to go out on a course with runners who are far more dedicated, gifted, risk-taking than I am and be seen for where I am in this journey. It highlights for me where I have gotten stronger and areas I still resist attending. Growth, in my experience, is rarely a comfortable feeling in the moment. I experience growth similar to having a small pebble in your shoe. It’s not enough, always, to stop you but it has your attention, it grates against your skin, it keeps some part of your attention and it is nagging, unrelenting. When you get to the end of the growth cycle for whatever skill, thought lens you are working toward, it’s like taking the pebble out of your left shoe. But don’t get too excited, if you are open to growth in your life, it will not be long before there is something in your right shoe, or you have an itch on the back of your neck.

Four years ago I co-wrote a book. Twelve years ago I became a coach. Fourteen years ago I earned my master’s degree. When we allow ourselves to be with the discomfort of learning, sometimes even the true struggle of it, what also arrives on the other side is freedom. It’s the freedom to grow and change and evolve. It’s the freedom to keep adding to the list of the things I know how to do while I am all the while being who I am. I am a learner. It comes with friction and it offers me freedom. Seems like the price is more affordable than I thought. 

Sunshine & Sarcasm,
Lowi & G

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