The fear of starting over

I have a confession...

I hate being a beginner. I hate being bad at things. I hate being ignorant, and I hate showing it even more.

I'm all about excellence and mastery. Being awesome at the things I care about is my jam. So even though I intellectually know we all gotta start somewhere, I find it extremely uncomfortable.

Which is exactly why the universe decided to give me a big, fat lesson when I recently started as a volunteer at a fancy schmancy public garden.

My gardening resume is pretty light. My previous experience was limited to taking care of my mom's garden last Summer.

It was a great gig. I had flexible hours, set the agenda, and gave my mom long and urgent to-do lists.

There wasn't a huge learning curve. We'd refer to plants by their locations, "The big white bush by the driveway," or "The bush in between that little tree and the other 3 bushes."

When I marched myself up to the Horticulturalist at the public garden to volunteer, I knew I didn't have much book knowledge, but I was feeling pretty confident about my intuitive gardening skills and excited to learn some facts.

Now for 3-5 hours every week, I'm reminded of little I know.

At the public garden, they rattle off Latin names, varieties, and cultivars without a care:

Them: You can start weeding by the Big Bonnet echinacea filium.*

Me: Um...

Them: The giant patch of bright pink flowers to your left.

Me: Got it!

*Not a real plant, but it sounds beautiful, right?!

Last week, I accidentally referred to purple prairie clover (excuse me, Dalea purpurea) as "thistle." After the horticulturalist gave me a blank (slightly horrified?) stare, I corrected myself and pointed, "Whatever I just planted over there." (My mom would have understood).

Then, after the horticulturalist asked me to fill in some empty spaces with new plantings, I accidentally created NEW empty spaces, which in turn needed to be filled.

What's my point in all of this other than to enumerate the number of rookie mistakes I've made?

It's to remind us of the real value behind the Beginner's Mind (or "Shoshin," as it's called in Zen Buddhism). It refers to having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject.

While we might put a fancy quote about this on the wall when we're sitting in the corner office, most of us high-achievers don't give ourselves the chance to be true beginners.

The fear of starting over keeps most people stuck. They'd prefer to have mastery at a job they hate than be a beginner at something they're curious about.

I get it. There's comfort in having all the answers and knowing how to navigate an organization. The idea of leaving that behind for something new is scary.

Every single career changer tells me they want to be challenged and stretched in their careers. Many cite the monotony and boredom of the daily grind. Yet in order to grow, there must be a gap. There must be a new challenge, level, or skill to be acquired.

But the gap is just a gap. It's not a deep, gaping chasm ready to swallow you and your career up. It's simple a new empty space to be filled in an already thriving garden.

So let me be clear:

  • Stop assuming you have to take a pay cut. It's just not true.

  • Starting something new is NOT the same as starting over.

  • Everything is transferrable: You bring the full benefit of your experiences and knowledge to every new thing regardless of what you know about the new thing itself.

  • Your knowledge gap is a BENEFIT: intractable problems get solved by people who view them in a completely different way.

  • There's no greater impact you can have than solving an intractable problem that no one else could.

Undue focus on the stuff you don't know (and can quickly learn...and probably should be delegating anyway) undervalues all of the skills and experience you bring to the table Day 1.

It's actually a huge advantage to not be burdened by the assumptions, institutional knowledge, and that's-the-way-we've-always-done-it mentality.

Plus, the beginner's mindset is all about embracing the possibilities, challenging assumptions, and seeing with the clear-eyed perspective that only a beginner brings.

The expert knows everything there is to know, right? Where's the innovation in that?

I wish I could end this post with a triumphant story about how I transformed the way the public garden does things just by asking a stupid question or providing a unique perspective.

Unfortunately, I can't. I'm still very much in the being-bad-at-it phase (ahem, I mean in the all-expansive-beginner's-mindset phase).

But I know that it's just that: a phase to soak up information, ask basic questions, and temporarily be in the gap in order to eventually be great.

So, I challenge you to embrace the beginner's mindset. Give yourself space to embrace the possibilities, challenge assumptions, and see your career unfold with the clear-eyed perspective that being a beginner brings.

What career step are you postponing because of the fear of starting over?

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Author Bio: 

Before becoming a coach, Caroline worked in management consulting and financial services. She's made it her mission to help people grow, contribute, and get wherever they want to go.

Caroline wants people to recognize how much power they truly have to define their careers. The life and career you want really is possible once you have the roadmap. Take the first step by downloading her free guide: 4 steps to take back your life and design a career with purpose.

She’s also a tennis fanatic, aspiring Minimalist, FIRE (Financial Independence and Retire Early) enthusiast, and Aloha Spirit seeker 🤙. She loves to share stories from her unconventional life and career focused on freedom, creativity, fun, health, family, and community. If she can do it, you can, too.