Some people possess natural talent. A friend of mine who runs a successful business turned his first profit when he was eight. My musician husband would make sounds with anything he could find when he was a toddler. I was obsessed with drawing as a kid. You could kept me entertained for hours with a box of crayons and a pad of paper.
However it looks to others, we didn’t come out of the womb already great at these skills; instead we were just really motivated at a very young age. I really, really wanted draw well, and so I practiced until I got good.
It is easy to feel like it isn’t worth trying something new if you don’t master it immediately, or if people have drummed into you that it is too difficult. It’s especially discouraging if you are in a class where others pick it up quickly, or you compare yourself with an expert. We feel stupid, our inner critic is going off, and our egos are bruised.
It can be more challenging to learn as we get older because we forget what the learning process feels like: all the trials of learning how to walk, read, ride a bike or even drive a car. We are so fluent in these activities we are barely aware of the skill required to do them.
Most of us have lots of practice berating ourselves as we age as well. A toddler doesn’t hesitate to get back up when he or she falls down. There is no inner critic to slow down the child’s process. He or she just gets up and tries again.
It’s not so easy for us adults. We become embarrassed and angry at ourselves if we don’t do it perfectly the first time. The biggest challenge for many people is not learning the skill, but getting the inner critic to shut up so they can try again.
Here are some things to remember when learning a new skill.
1. Don’t give up. It’s normal to feel discouraged if it isn’t working, and the person on your left is doing it perfectly, and the mean voices in your head are yelling at you. Pause, take a breather, and don’t buy into it. Look for a different instructor or book if you really feel stumped. Get curious about the process instead of beating yourself up. Finding out more if it doesn’t work is proof you aren’t stupid.
2. Increase the fun by loosening up. Treating your project like an experiment will open you up to different possibilities. Maybe that giant hat you knitted is actually a bag that needs a strap.
3. Start with small, easy projects. I keep meeting crochet students who want to make a blanket for their first project. This makes me nervous, because blankets take forever to complete, and these students are still developing their skill and confidence. I recommend they start with something small like fingerless gloves that they can finish quickly. A more manageable project will inspire them to crochet more. That won’t happen if their first project is an uneven monster blanket that they can’t finish.
4. Skills are learnable, especially with practice. Math is not a natural skill for me, but I developed the ability to arithmetic quickly in my head when I worked in a retail store in my 20’s, and I regained this skill once I started knitting. Anything you do on a regular basis will eventually become easy.
5. Do not compare yourself with others. You don’t know what transferrable skills a classmate may have. Maybe they are a repeat student who did terrible the first time around, and now it’s finally clicking together. Ultimately it doesn’t matter. Only compare yourself with yourself.
6. Recognize your own progress. Your work is probably better than you think. I remember in a watercolor class I taught, all of my students had grasped the technique and were developing their own styles. They were painting some impressive pictures and they could admire fellow students pictures, but they had difficulty appreciating their own.
7. It does get easier. It is way harder to learn the most rudimentary steps of a new skill than to expand on a skill you already possess. Don’t switch to knitting if you don’t immediately pick up crochet. Stick it out a little longer, and it will get easier. The actual process of learning also gets easier. Mistakes will become less of a big deal, and you will bounce back more quickly. It is important to remember that every experienced practitioner went through all the same struggles that you are going through right now.
Sometimes fear is just part of the process. Henry Fonda became nauseous every time he went onstage. I have my own moment of nerves every time I do a painting demonstration for a bunch of students. The thing that keep me going is the memory of all the times I have painted in front of a group in the past. I just brace myself and keep painting. Even if I’m not happy with the results the rest of the class is always satisfied, and it’s good for me to be honest about my own struggles with perfectionism.
A mediation teacher once said, “There is a reason meditation is called a ‘practice.’ We are never perfect at it. We are constantly working on it.” The process of making art or doing projects doesn’t feel like the the cute projects you see on Pinterest or Etsy. While we can feel successful, and the process can be fun and joyful, it also has its ups and downs, just like ordinary life.