In a world that rewards advancement and perfection, being a beginner—at anything—is terrifying. Somewhere along the path from childhood to adulthood, high achievers become increasingly fearful of criticism and doing anything "badly."
This was certainly the case for me, and recently I decided to do something about it. Sick of taking myself so seriously, I decided to step far out of my corporate comfort zone and attend an art class...solo.
I wanted to turn right around and walk out as soon as I walked in the door. This is foolish, and so awkward, my brain pleaded. You don’t belong here with these artsy folks. I wished I was wearing a shirt that said "I promise I'm not weird, I have friends, and I don't usually do this. Oh...and I probably won't be any good at this painting thing, so please don't judge me?!"
After checking myself in at registration and reconfirming for a second time that yes, it was "just me," I collected my smock and brushes and was told to choose an easel. I somehow managed to navigate around my fellow participants (all with groups of friends or on romantic dates) who seemed to be having the time of their lives. My brushes were wobbling in my unsteady hand as I positioned myself in the back.
I was quite convinced I was going to fail, that my paint would drip all over the place, that these lovely strangers would be forced into trying to tell me I did a good job when we would all secretly know I did not. (Do not placate me, people; that's just adding insult to this creative injury.)
I immediately and shakily ordered a martini—wine wasn't going to cut it—and prayed for forgiveness for all the sins that had led me to this terrifying situation. Upon reflection, isn't it incredible what the brain can convince itself of? I was, after all, in a safe, nurturing, nonthreatening environment. But for me, the situation was far more difficult than speaking to a room of hundreds of people.
I finally unclenched my jaw enough to see how much others were enjoying themselves throughout the evening. I tried to relax a little and gave myself the same pep talk I would in any unfamiliar situation. "If you can run corporate America, you can do this silly painting thing." I'd almost forgotten I was supposed to be having fun.
The class was ultimately not the massacre I had built it up to be in my head. I found myself enjoying mixing the colors on the palette—it was a no-pressure zone where I got to be fully present and totally attuned with my senses. The act of combining colors to make different hues and shades had a childlike, playful quality to it that was strangely comforting. I also enjoyed the texture of the oil paint, the smells, the feel of the brushes.
Though the outcome probably won't be hanging in a museum anytime soon, I now realize that my lack of talent was precisely the point of the exercise. Ultimately, being a beginner is about the input, not the output.
Ironically, I didn't even realize I'd get to the keep the painting until the end of the class. When I found out I'd be bringing my (imperfect) creation home, I knew I had a choice: I could zoom in on every perceived flaw and area for improvement, or I could emulate a child proudly posting his or her craft project on the refrigerator. I chose the latter and hung it in my home office.
There was no way I could have anticipated the effect this adventure and subsequent painting would have. The canvas still hangs unassumingly in my office, and when I'm buried in a flurry of back-to-back conference calls and climbing through the insanity of daily life, I look up at it and smile.
It's a visual reminder of humility, of the beauty of imperfection, of being a novice. As someone who prides herself on being a high achiever, on not making mistakes, and on getting it right, this was the permission slip I needed to more fully relax and enjoy my life.
If you can relate to this story, you, too, are a recovering perfectionist. And I challenge you to be a beginner at something this holiday season. To step out of your comfort and competence zone and do something new. The rewards are well worth it.