Learning How To Be A Beginner 

I’ve often wondered why it is when I draw something or make something, my first effort is often good, and later things go downhill. I know this sounds all contradictory and upside-down, but I’ve noticed it happens time and time again; the first drawing or whatever it is might be inaccurate, the proportions off, a bit wonky – but essentially it’s good. The trouble is that from then on I’ll continue in a different frame of mind. I’ll be thinking, ah, here we go, I know how to do this now – and my drawing will be worse. 

It was especially obvious when I did the #1week100people sketching challenge. Along with lots of sketchers all over the world, I sketched lots of people – around about a hundred – and not much else for a whole week. It was an exciting, freewheeling exercise and I was looking forward to seeing an improvement in my drawings. I was hoping – well, actually, expecting that. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. I noticed as I went along that things weren’t going as I’d hoped because as I complained in my previous post, ‘every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off’. I thought I was going to learn and advance in an obvious way, and I thought at the time that this definately wasn’t happening – but in the end I discovered the answer to something that’s puzzled me for a long time, something more interesting and more valuable. 

I have Susan McCulley and her latest post, Revisiting Beginner’s Mind to thank for this insight, and it’s going to pop up again and again in everything I think and do for the foreseeable future. What it is, in simple terms, is that I need to stop thinking that I know what I’m doing and learn to be a beginner. Or rather, I need to think like a beginner, with all that freshness, openness and excitement about the unknown, because as soon as I start to think ‘I know all about this’ I’m no longer really looking, or not looking with a spirit of enquiry. I’ve boxed myself in and closed the door on all kinds of possibilities. 

There are all sorts of ways to do this, none of them comfortable. Like shaking things up and switching materials. Drawing with something uncompromising like a sharpened stick can be a good way. Drawing fast, drawing people in motion helps. But it all requires letting go of what I think I know, trusting my eyes and my hands and the mysterious process that happens when I really look at something as if I’m seeing it for the first time. 

None of this is easy. It’s not just about drawing, either – it’s about the way to approach everything. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin, which refers to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

If all this seems rather obvious, perhaps it is – but the implications are far reaching. If I slip into the habit of thinking the same way about something simply because I believe I know all about it, I’m never going to learn anything new about it. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

17 thoughts on “Learning How To Be A Beginner 

  1. The words at the end say it all. I think this happens to all of us from time to time. For me it is best to work faster than I would like. Perhaps because I have less time to think and the inner critic has no time to argue?! Thank you for this interesting post!

  2. The 1week100people challenge was a perfect way to get into beginner’s mind – and as you illustrate (with your words) the challenge had you reeling with unexpected bumps in the road – but what a stroke of luck that you read that post and saw things in a new light. For me, all the sketches here are very fresh and full of life – the last one especially.

    1. It was a stroke of luck, as you say (if there actually is such a thing, and perhaps all such coincidences are not coincidental) but it just made me consciously aware of something I’d known for a very long time – as you obviously know as well! Thanks for the compliment – the last one is the only one I really have a good feeling about too. 🙂

  3. As soon as I started reading this, I thought ‘beginner’s mind’. So then, to read it here was amusing.

    Haha, oh boy, I know this so well. Help, I say – beginner’s mind, I say – and… nothing, nada. That first quick movement was OK – and then it just turns into a rigid exercise. Even the paper dissuades me. Scraps of paper are OK: sketch books are an invitation for my mind to seize up. 🙂

    1. …. and as soon as I started writing this I thought, ‘David Bennett will understand this’ – so I wasn’t wrong! I know what you mean about scraps of paper. But this is the reason I use really cheap sketchbooks, because good ones scare me rigid. Sigh.! 😕

    1. Thank you Charlie! Lovely to hear from you – and I have to say that you’re the last person I would have thought needed to hear this because your drawings are all so fresh, and as for your writing – no one could demonstrate better what Beginner’s Mind is all about! 😃

      1. Aww that’s so sweet of you to say! 😊 I have more of a regular “child-like” mind which helps to always approach things in a fresh way. But I have to remind myself a lot when going to paint to keep trying new techniques, etc.! hehe

    1. I was so grateful to Susan MacCulley for writing her post on this at just the right moment for me, and now it seems a lot of people have the same feeling! It always feels good to share things like this. Thanks Cate.

  4. This is a really valuable concept and i get it. I just don’t understand how to control it, how to facilitate having the beginner’s openness of mind. do share more experiences as they come along. This post has been really awesome for me.

    1. I think everyone finds this challenging. I’ll certainly share anything else that comes along and I’m so glad this resonated with you. Thanks!

  5. What a brilliant post!

    I can relate to this 100%, I often find myself getting too comfortable in my writing that it starts to lack the flair it once had, in the beginning.

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