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Beginner's Mind: A Joyful and Beneficial Way to Learn

Approach new pursuits with openness and humility

By Niki Vettel | October 4, 2012
niki and rich vettel in their wedding photo on a ranch
Niki and Rich Vettel on their wedding day in 1995 at the Elk Refuge in Jackson, Wyo.
Courtesy of Niki Vettel

One of my greatest joys is knowing absolutely nothing about something that deeply interests me then diving headfirst into total immersion. Because I am interested in learning about so many things, I guess you could call me a serial know-nothing beginner.
 
(I should immediately distinguish myself from members of the shameful Know-Nothing Party of the mid-19th century, which was pro-slavery, anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. When queried about their hateful activities, members of the semi-secret organization would respond, “I know nothing.”)
 
The beauty of being my kind of a serial know-nothing beginner is that you can’t fail; with just a little effort, you can only get better. That is, if you can adopt and stick with a beginner's mind approach to learning. As a result of my willingness to embrace that, I have journeyed from pure ignorance to a respectable level of competence in a number of fascinating activities, from playing the ukulele to horseback riding to pottery throwing to guinea pig ownership to Reiki energy work.
 
I realize that not everyone loves being a beginner. For many, it’s not cool to suck at something: We're afraid of being judged, dismissed or assumed to be incompetent or, worst of all, stupid. “I'm afraid to go to a snow-shoeing clinic,” moaned one friend who’s actually dying to learn. “I won’t know how to do it.” Another once told me, “I can’t take a jewelry-making class; I don’t know how to make jewelry.” Duh! That’s why we take classes!
 
(MORE: How Plastic Is Your Brain?)
 
Cultivating Beginner’s Mind
 
Novice, newbie, neophyte, tenderfoot, greenhorn: Whatever you call it, starting out at zero to learn something brand new — something you really want to learn — is exhilarating. Being a beginner gives you permission to make lots of mistakes, and since flubbing in your own field of expertise is generally frowned upon, this can be utterly liberating.
 
The only hurdle is overcoming the typical adult mind-set, which has been conditioned to constantly remind us that we should know better, we should know something, ignorance is for losers. ... Sadly, all these shoulds are precisely what prevent some of us from showing up for a Thai cooking course or a glass-blowing workshop or a beginning trumpet class.

And the more we indulge our fear of trying, the harder it becomes with time. Once our egos kick in, we get defensive and even more resistant, then we stop taking chances altogether. But think of a child learning to crawl: It's a totally new experience, and yet he (we all!) undertake it with excitement and wonder. 
 
Benjamin Franklin said, “Being ignorant is not so much a shame as being unwilling to learn.” I say it this way: Embrace your inner ignoramus, and prepare to reap the benefits.
 
Sowing the Seeds of Know-Nothingness
 
Sometimes those benefits aren't the ones you expect. My favorite know-nothing learning experience was one of my first, some 23 years ago, when I was 37. I was flipping through the Yellow Pages (remember them?), and on a lark looked up “horseback riding.” I was amazed to find a riding academy just 20 minutes from where I lived in Boston.
 
In that instant, I realized that the thing that had held me back from pursuing this lifelong dream of riding (money) was no longer an obstacle. I had been crazy for horses as a kid, but only rode a few times because we couldn’t afford lessons. My dad had been a good horseman, and he'd tell me about his adventures trotting through New York’s Central Park in the 1920s and ’30s. I longed to do that, too.
 
A week later, I found myself standing in the stable at Saugus Riding Academy, decked out in store-stiff britches, cheap rubber boots and a helmet. I wasn’t afraid of the horses — but I was startled to see such a young kid saddling one up for me. The barn and the horses looked and smelled exactly like the ones in my childhood dreams, and the bug was already working its way through my bloodstream.
 
So what if Kathy, my instructor, barked instructions and most of the other students were half my age? I was learning the basics, and I was in heaven. 

(MORE: Rediscovering Old Passions)

From Know-Nothing to Know-Something
 
I started with one lesson a week, then quickly upped that to two — three when I could swing it. But it wasn't a cakewalk. I struggled with learning how to canter — this horse was really moving beneath me! Kathy yelled at me more than she praised me. And one day a horse stamped on my left foot and turned all my toes royal blue.
 
Yet I learned how to saddle and bridle my horse, do a sitting trot without stirrups and, eventually, pick up a canter on the correct lead. About a year later, I was confident enough to try a few little jumps.
 
Two years into my lessons, I was ready to tackle another huge dream: a week at a horse ranch in Wyoming that an advanced rider friend had told me about. “If you want a fabulous riding experience, this is the place to go to,” she said. It wasn’t a dude ranch (which offers a host of activities) but a highly respected enterprise devoted exclusively to riding. A certain skill level was expected, and I had reached that level through my apprenticeship.
 
Friends thought I was nuts, going alone to a ranch in the middle of Wyoming. But as I explained, repeatedly, I wanted to do this thing that spoke to my heart, even though I had never in my life worn a pair of chaps (required apparel at the Bitterroot Ranch). I also needed some time off from a stagnant relationship. I wanted to be around horses and away from men.
 
Within an hour of arriving at the ranch, I met my fellow riders, about 20 in all, one of whom was a tall, nice-looking guy named Rich. He’d been coming to the ranch for many years and blended in so perfectly I thought he was one of the wranglers. But when he spoke, it was with a thick Bronx accent, which I recognized from my own childhood in New York.
 
From the get-go, I turned to Rich for guidance, and he, along with some other “veterans,” showed me around and offered pointers. It was a magical experience. Riding magnificent horses through landscapes straight out of John Ford Westerns was everything I'd ever dreamed of.

The week went by too fast, and when it was time to go, Rich and I weren’t ready to say good-bye — we’d fallen in love. On one of our very first dates back East, we went riding in Central Park. Six years later we married, in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Sometimes “I don’t know” can even turn into “I do.”

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