These days I have been reconnecting with the trials and tribulations of being a total newbie. The credits for this humbling experience are due to my efforts to get my first Internet company off the ground. My experience has caused me to reflect on the oh-so-familiar situation of being a rank beginner, and I would like to share my thoughts on the topic in this post.
My immediate predicament is this: I have been learning about --and trying to apply!-- the principles of the 'lean startup movement' in an effort to get my company off the ground. At its heart, the lean startup movement is highly ambitious: it tries to bring method, structure, and rigor to the innately subtle and enigmatic process of building successful companies and products.
The principles and concepts of the lean startup movement are both highly abstract and very well defined. The literature on the topic tells a compelling story. A gullible beginner might even begin to think that building a successful business is a routine task as long as one follows the prescribed methods. Indeed, I have felt this way sometimes!
The problems, of course, have emerged as I have tried to apply the lean startup principles to my own situation. A Pandora's box of questions and doubts has emerged. This has reminded me of how I have felt when a great math teacher taught the design of an elegant proof, or a music teacher showed me the essence of certain compositions. When an experienced practitioner talks, it all feels so easy and so natural. Difficult problems seem routine. Difficult musical passages feel effortless. Only when the push comes to shove and you have to actually repeat the performance do you realize the difficulty of the task.
Lots of negative feelings arise when a rank beginner is in the situation where the rubber hits the road and theory has to be converted to tangible action. There are feelings of consternation and restlessness. The uncertainty of what to do tends to drive one to distraction and procrastination. The overwhelming tendency is to succumb to 'analysis paralysis'. A competing tendency is to pick some arbitrary course of action and try to force it to work regardless of the actual results. All of this causes significant stress.
This, unfortunately, is the natural order of things. In the abstract, everything is ordered and clear. But life does not care for abstractions. The problem with being a rank beginner is that one does not have the first clue about how to bridge the gap between the concepts and the real world. As a beginner, your next step is simply not certain nor obvious. You have to navigate a totally unfamiliar terrain with only a 10,000 ft map as a guide and no past experience to rely upon. You only have a very distant target to aim at, a seemingly infinite number of next steps you could take to get you there, and no idea about which steps help and which ones hurt.
While it is almost impossible to prescribe exactly what one should do in this situation, there are certain attitudes and courses of action which have worked for me in the past.
The first and most important thing is to make a commitment to yourself that you will show up everyday and try to do something concrete. When I was a total newbie at calculational math, I made a commitment to myself to sit down for at least an hour and try to do as many proofs as I could. Sometimes I would not manage to get a single one, sometimes I would get three or more in the hour. But making the commitment to sit everyday was the important thing.
Once you commit to yourself, the next thing is to remain very humble, attentive, and take stock of your actions on a daily basis. Going back to the math example, after I spent my hour, I would take the time to reflect on what happened. If I could not get a proof, I would consider going for a simpler exercise the next day. If I could do all the proofs, I would scale up to the next level for the next day. This constant awareness, flexibility, and adjustment kept things interesting and made the whole process sustainable.
Finally, one should keep going back and re-reading the theory as one practices. For example, in my math practice, there were a few books which were authorities on the topic, and I would keep revisiting them regularly as I practiced. What happens when one practices is that the old concepts take on a new meaning. Only by thinking about these concepts in the light of ones actions do they sink deeper and get internalized.
The lesson is that the only way to progress from being a total newbie to being a capable practitioner is to keep things simple, take things one day at a time, be diligent, be disciplined, and be tenacious. Nothing else really matters. As long as you bring yourself to the table everyday, keep an open and honest attitude, and are unwilling to make a compromise with ones natural inertia, then things get easier with time. Overcoming the initial hump is the the crucial thing, and only strong personal traits can see you through.
While these personal traits are rare, they can be developed with practice. That is why I like to reconnect with being a rank beginner on a regular basis. This is why I have found learning music, doing yoga, and doing crossfit so rewarding. Sticking through the painful starts in these hobbies have developed crucial skills which are being tested to the hilt as I try to start my own company.
If you are also struggling with being a total beginner, it is perhaps best to practice learning how to be a beginner by learning a non-critical hobby and seeing it through. Then when the push comes to shove and you have to take a big bet and do something really bold, you will at least have something to rely upon. I truly believe that my experiences with math, music, yoga, and fitness will be the difference between success and failure as I try to build my new company.
Thanks for reading!