Maybe you are familiar with the model that outlines four stages of learning:

  1. Unconscious incompetence: I don’t know what I don’t know
  2. Conscious incompetence: I’m trying to learn, and it’s hard! I’m mostly making mistakes
  3. Conscious competence: I’m getting a lot better, but I still need to concentrate
  4. Unconscious competence: I’m so good at this that I can get into a state of flow

I’m not proud of this, but I go to great lengths to avoid #2—conscious incompetence. It’s the reason I bought a sewing machine and never did anything with it. It’s the reason I let my bike go unused in the garage until my husband can fix the tire, or why I gave up trying to leash train my dog. I really like to know things, but I’m not so hot on learning them!

My mom, sister, and I went to a painting workshop last weekend expertly taught by Nicki Lang and Lindsey Kiniry. Of the 20 participants, 5 or 6 were painters, and the rest of us were pretty nervous. After Nicki and Lindsey gave some instruction and we turned to our easels, you could hear a pin drop. We were focusing so hard! The conscious incompetence was as thick as the oil paint on our palette knives.

I came home with some paintings that I don’t plan on hanging up, but also some little cards that I’m looking forward to sending. I made them, and I feel tender toward myself and the other learners at the workshop, trying so hard to get it right, also trying not to care about getting it right, and giving ourselves the gift of being beginners.

If you’re a mechanical engineer, I hope you’re not incompetent in your design of an elevator! But at one point you were, and you persisted. And whenever our learning involves people, complex decision-making, relationships, and the spectrum of human emotions, all of us are beginners in some way or another. And we have to give one another the grace to make some novice paintings.

I’m not inspired by the highlight reels—all the ways people have figured it out. I’m inspired by the messy, inexpert trying. I’m going to pick up a couple more tubes of paint this week and keep going—I hope you will, too.