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The Toughest Learning Stage + How to Overcome It

If you repeatedly fail when trying to master new skills, get a new certification or try new hobbies, it may be that you faulter during the toughest learning stage. In this article, you’ll find out what that stage is and how to overcome it.

This stretch of the journey acts as a mirror for our psychology, dragging up those old fears, limiting beliefs and unhelpful patterns that we’d rather run away from.

That inner material creates a wall around us that seems impenetrable but is actually illusory. If we don’t know how to learn, we can easily get trapped there.

I’ve overcome this learning stage in all my pursuits, including Spanish, guitar, Chinese, maths, and more, and I see it when guiding others through their own. The more I see it and experience it, the more I’m convinced that it’s the toughest.

What is the Toughest Learning Stage?

Let me spill the beans right away. The toughest stage is the beginning, when you’re finding your feet in your new pursuit. This is when a huge proportion of learners are scythed down, overcome by fear and hopelessness.

This learning stage causes so many problems that I decided to give it a name: the beginner’s hump.

Know that a huge contributor to success on the learning journey is having your head straight when you start out. This will go a long way to getting through the beginner’s hump.

After reading this article, which dovetails nicely with my article on the four types of learners, you’ll be much better equipped to wrestle with this learning stage.

You can apply these insights to any area you’re exploring for the first time – from new careers and hobbies to fresh responsibilities, such as parenthood. Life is constantly asking us to step up, and we’ll only match up if we bring the right mentality to bear.

Disclaimer! Some of my words might seem bleak and pessimistic, but my intention is to warn and inform, not scare.

After painstakingly mastering several subjects, and watching students and friends applying themselves in their own endeavours, I’ve come to realise that newbie status throws up dangerous dynamics. We can easily hamstring ourselves before we’ve really had lift-off, meaning we’re guaranteed to fail.

I originally wrote this article for Find it here:

Let’s get to it.

I’ve found that the beginner’s hump has three main phases: the very beginning, when we’re filled with enthusiasm; the fall from Eden, when we realise the magnitude of our new venture; and the marriage, when we finally commit to developing competence regardless of the obstacles in our way and the difficulties that befall us.

So what does the very beginning of a new pursuit look like?

Toughest Learning Stage: Phase 1 – Lift-Off

The beginning of any pursuit is an intense time.

Our first taste of a venture often brings a huge mental expansion. At this learning stage, you’re inspired and excited. The new activity has a pronounced shine of newness. We find new people, new people, new teachers, new places, and new routines. Our eyes open to an unexplored area of life.

It’s almost like the moment when you find a new partner after months and years of seeking. You’re captivated by your beloved, and when you look in the mirror you see You 2.0.

Photo by Micah Tindell on Unsplash

On the other hand, the start is when we come into contact with the heroes that preceded us. Our low level of competence makes us feel remarkably unexceptional in comparison and may undermine our excitement.

We look clumsy and klutzy; they move with grace and ease. Cue the classic: “How do they make it look so easy?” “Is it hard for me because I’m a mess up?” As a newcomer to this foreign land, we might believe we are inherently incapable of reaching a high level and that those masters were privy to a secret potion.

It can also be a humbling experience, especially as we get older and more stuck in our ways. You have to surrender your image of seniority and superiority – success in other areas of life might even become a stumbling block. Perhaps we do learn more slowly as adults, but it could be that we jeopardise ourselves with our own inner blocks and unwillingness to start afresh.

In any case, the initial excitement usually keeps us in orbit for a while, long enough to take in the reality of the new endeavour.

Beginner Phase 2 – The Fall From Eden

After the initial love affair with the endeavour often comes a sober dose of reality. The depth of the subject is revealed, and a seeming oblivion opens before us. This thing is much vaster than we thought. 

The new equipment loses its shine. The veil of sexiness shrouding the pursuit is unceremoniously torn off. Now we see that the actual process of getting good at this thing is way uglier and messier than it seemed. At this point, our progress slows, and we’re forced to really get our hands dirty.

Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

You see, we humans care about image. Part of the appeal of excelling in life is the image and exposure our status affords us. But appearances can be deceptive, and they pose a danger in the realm of learning and skill-building.

While the greats do look great, the journey to competence is not sexy. It’s like a magic trick – it only looks good from a certain angle and when done quickly. Slow it down or reveal the secret sauce and it loses all appeal.

Analogously, very few people talk about the dirt and grime the great masters crawled through to get to their standing. Finesse and flow lie on the other side of the swamp. When you first encounter this drudgery, you face a decision. Will your preoccupation with flimsy appearances cut you down, or will you stick through the hard labour required for graceful performance?

Toughest Learning Stage: Phase 3 – Marrying Your Pursuit

The next phase – if you make it this far – is to marry your pursuit. You choose to get good, no matter what. Yet this isn’t easy, because results come slowly, and as beginners we feel clumsy and incompetent.

Don’t worry, I do have ways out of this predicament. There are several ways to overcome these obstacles and commit to long-term learning. Most of these solutions are mindset-oriented. Your mentality is what holds you up when you have no competence to lean on. 

First off, cultivate the growth mindset here. Be like The Master. Realise that being a child in a new pursuit is natural. Your path to glory is forged by steel, determination and practice, not inherent ability.

Next, avoid dabbling. The Dabbler loves the rituals involved in starting up a new pursuit, but their allergy to monogamy makes them jump ship too early.

Photo by Mariano Rivas on Unsplash

Once you find a hobby, career or pursuit that lights you up, make it yours. Don’t let the insatiable need for newness blindside you. When the veil of sexiness is whipped off, keep going.

Rather than shying away from the difficulty, be present with it and participate in it. Practice with a spirit of love and patience. Reconnect with your initial motivations and hold onto your vision.

Finally, establish solid routines and habits. These ground you and provide a sense of continuity and stability when the going gets rough. In a group setting, the structure might already be in place. Great. If you’re going it alone, it’s down to you.

A favourite strategy of mine, which offers flexibility within certain limits, is to dedicate a certain number of hours per week to the pursuit. Another is to simply practice it for a predefined length of time on certain days of the week.

Over time, routines become integrated into our lives and we take solace in them. Done consistently, a simple routine can be life-changing. When I sit down to do my language study, I feel at home. When I open a book to analyse the author’s writing, it’s as though I were settling into my favourite chair.

Parting tips: How to Overcome this Learning Stage

The prospect of starting out might seem more daunting to you than it did before reading this article, but don’t fret.

The realities of skill-building are unsavoury. Having faced those realities square on, you’re now better prepared for the Beginner’s Hump than most people. And with time, your attitude to launching new projects and ventures will shift.

What’s my experience of the Beginner’s Hump?

Traversing the Beginner’s Hump in a range of pursuits has permanently altered how I view talent, competence and the entire learning journey.

Whenever I start a new endeavour, I basically expect to suck. I brace myself for some humbling experiences on the journey. But I’m able to direct my focus away from my fears and fantasies and towards routine and diligence. I roll with the initial struggle and tedium, knowing I’ll be rewarded with flow states and satisfaction further down the line.

And remember, the learning journey isn’t easy, but it is deeply rewarding.

We also experience those moments when we look back and suddenly realise how far we’ve come. We can lay down our tools for a while and just marvel at what we’ve created.

Photo by Ben Dutton on Unsplash

Make sure to acknowledge those moments and savour their sweetness. They recur throughout the journey, usually separated by periods of tedium and graft.

And with enough competence, everything becomes a pleasure. The fundamentals are now inbuilt. We have developed deep roots that allow us to expand and create up top. We can both penetrate to the marrow of the subject and move off into new directions. Practice is pleasurable, and we perform with elegance and poise.

So embrace the Beginner’s Hump. Your persistence and patience will be richly rewarded on the other side.

Check out my Be A Prolific Learner Series To Build A Complete Toolkit for Learning And Mastery