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On beginning something new
...and remembering the joys and sorrows of doing it
The tricky thing about initiating something new, whether learning a foreign language, starting a job, becoming a volunteer in a non-profit organization, or launching a newsletter, is this: In hindsight, many details slip from memory. We forget how difficult it was to take the first step, how many doubts we had, and how little we knew about the unfamiliar territory we set foot in. And it’s not only the doubts and obstacles; we also consign to oblivion the joyful and exciting moments we experienced while embarking on the new path.
Once we are on our way, we seldom look back but keep our eyes squarely on the horizon. At least, this is what often happens to me. So as the end of this year is approaching, I want to reflect on beginnings - not the beginnings of next year, but the beginnings of 2022.
Taking the first step
“Beginning well or beginning poorly, what is important is simply to begin,” writes the poet David Whyte in his book Consolations. The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:
Like picking up a new and unfamiliar musical instrument, the first necessary step involves taking the time to get a simple clear note, usually the simple clear note of forgiveness that comes in allowing yourself the right, at this stage, not to know anything at all.
This is difficult, Whyte acknowledges, so we tend to procrastinate and delay, coming up with all sorts of reasons why we can’t start now:
It is always hard to believe that the courageous (first) step is simpler, more radical than we had thought: just picking up the pen or the wood chisel, just picking up the instrument or the phone, which is why we so often prefer the story to be more elaborate, our identities clouded by fear, the horizon safely in the distance, the essay longer than it needs to be and the answer safely in the realm of impossibility.
My newsletter is a case in point. I launched Onward in June. By then, I had been pondering the idea of a newsletter for months. I mulled over many doubts and concerns: Can I pull off this form of writing that is different from my work as a science journalist? Is my English good enough to write to the standards I aspire to? Will I find enough gripping topics that motivate me to keep going and provide plenty of value to readers? Which is the right platform to host my newsletter? Will I be able to tackle all that unfamiliar technical stuff? What is the right balance between writing personally and scientifically? Where do I find appealing pictures? How do I create images on my own?
I postponed the launch so often that I risked running out of steam. And I realized: If I don’t start now, for better or worse, I will not start at all. Letting go of the expectation to control everything and allowing myself to head into the unknown did the trick.
Taking the first step is a real achievement, and one should acknowledge it as such. But, of course, the first step is ….well, just the first step. More steps must follow, and they are usually hard.
As we advance, there will be omissions, miscalculations, and blunders. This is almost inevitable, as American author Tom Vanderbilt points out in his book Beginners: The Joy and Transformative Power of Lifelong Learning:
Beginners ask the same obvious questions, suffer from the same misconceptions, make the same mistakes. Every field has its nervous beginners. Beginner archers grip the bow too hard and aim too long. Beginner auto mechanics spill oil, snap lug nuts, strip Phillips head screws. Novice sailors run over their dinghy lines, get hair and jewelry tangles in jib sheets, and forget how much deep and shallow water look the same.
As a novice newsletter writer, I experienced my share of misunderstandings and slips. For example, I chose the wrong image sizes multiple times so that pictures appeared to be cut off. I started a German edition without thinking it through sufficiently and quickly learned that I didn’t have the time to see this additional task through.
One Friday morning at 5:00 am, the time I schedule my weekly posts to be sent out, my own inbox stayed empty. Assuming that my subscribers hadn’t received an email either, I felt my heart racing and my palms sweating. I tried to contact the Substack helpdesk but had no success. One can’t just resend a post to subscribers a second time on this platform. So I frantically started a new post, into which I pasted text and images of the original one. Then, I hit the send-to-all-subscriber button and waited… again, no email in my inbox.
What could be the problem, I wondered. Maybe my internet connection wasn’t working correctly? Perhaps all of Substack was down? But this made no sense, as I could access my Substack account without problems. And then I saw what had happened. The new Substack app had been launched the day before, and while installing it, I had accidentally unsubscribed from email notifications of all newsletters, including my own. So this Friday morning, it was only my inbox that remained empty. All my subscribers had received an email with my post—actually two. 😉
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Don’t get me wrong, starting the newsletter was exciting; in fact, it was one of the most exciting things I did this year. Seeing the first post on the Onward homepage was exhilarating. Getting the first like and the first comment made my day. And every shared post and new subscriber made my heart jump a little.
I also learned a tremendous amount. I now type a lot faster than I did at the beginning of the year. I taught myself to create colorful images on the design platform Canva and figured out how to find royalty-free photos online. I reorganized my day to have more time for researching and writing Onward posts. I found role models and connected with fellow writers.
It turns out my experiences are not at all unusual. Beginners fall down, slip up, and get hurt, book author Vanderbilt writes, but “for all bumps and bruises, gaffes and blunders, being a beginner can be a wonderful thing.” During his yearlong quest to learn five skills, he has become convinced “that there is magic to the early stages.”
When you learn a new skill, the brain is in a state of hyperawareness, which is similar to the neurological state at the beginning of a love affair, Vanderbilt explains:
As you plunge into learning some art or skill, the world around you appears new and bursting with infinite horizons. Each day brims with new discoveries as you take your tentative first steps, slowly pushing the bounds of exploration. You make mistakes, but even these are empowering, because they are mistakes you have never made before.
Vanderbilt also points to an unexpected benefit of being a novice that I have never thought about: “You’re freed from the worries of “impostor syndrome”—that anxiety of not being the expert you’re cracked up to be—because no one actually expects you to be any good.”
Furthermore, almost inevitably, the gains you make early will far exceed those you make later, Vanderbilt points out:
The meaning of a “steep learning curve” is often misconstrued as something that’s dauntingly hard. A skill may or may not be difficult to learn, but the steepness of the learning curve is actually just a graphical representation of time versus progress. A steep learning curve means you’re climbing faster. And the steepest learning curves come right away.
The progress by leaps and bounds, the excitement and goosebumps, the magic of experiencing something new - as a beginner, you should cherish this moment, Vanderbilt writes. I totally agree!
Dear friends -
This was the last post in 2022. Onward is taking time off and will be back sometime in January 2023. (Until then, I will put the paid subscriptions on hold.)
Thank you all so much for venturing into this newsletter journey with me. Wishing you a joyful and bright Holiday Season and a successful start to the New Year!
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