Those First Faltering Steps

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If you are not willing to become a fool, you can’t become a master.

Jordan Peterson

To my eyes, the beach looked smooth and level. A day’s rain had matted the sand down, condensing its normally deep, foot-swallowing layers into a flat and welcome walking surface. As I set my 20 month-old grandson, Cooper, onto the sand for his first walk on the beach, he gripped my hand with trepidation as he struggled to gain his balance. The sand shifted under his little feet and this normally confident walker felt unsure, hesitant to take the next step lest he fall over.

As I watched him struggle to get his footing, I was reminded of how we all struggle with the new, the unknown, with change, or our own sense of incompetence. Will this new experience cause me pain? Might I be embarrassed? Will someone else see my inexperience? What will happen if I fall?

Normally recklessly fearless, this little boy was fearful to move onto this new surface where he felt poor balance, uncertain footing, and the grip of uncertainty. Initially, I was surprised but then it made perfect sense. The beach was completely new. A new surface. New sounds. New colors. New dangers.

Everything he knew before had changed. The certainty of a room, the stairs, or a sidewalk had been replaced with something completely unknown. He needed some time to get his bearings. He needed some reassurance that he could navigate the change. He needed to take those first few steps to realize he could take the next ones.

We never really lose that self-protective instinct when we encounter true change, do we? Walking into something in which we are no longer qualified or competent, we return to that first walk on the beach. We take those first faltering steps hesitantly, fearful of what they might bring. Hesitant in the unknown.

Though my grandson was initially hesitant, it passed pretty quickly. When we’re young, it’s all new. Though we may hesitate as we assess the danger to our self, we become accustomed to jumping-in before we’re fully prepared or even modestly qualified. As we age, we become hesitant to tread where we feel uneasy. Incompetence is frightening and the feeling it engenders leaves us feeling unsettled and reluctant.

Our resistance to change stems from the same self-protective fear Cooper felt as he first stepped onto that beach. We tend to stick to the known paths, places where we at least feel safe. We tend to lean on the known skills, talents with which we feel confident. We tend to do the same jobs, functions in which we feel competent. We work to avoid anything that makes us feel less capable or uncertain. We feel that it’s safer that way.

I recently started down the path of learning to speak Spanish. The joy I felt at starting down the path, committing myself, and learning has been more than equalled by the utter frustration of incompetence I feel whenever I try to apply anything I’ve learned. It has been a very slow process and I am far from mastering the language. I’ve been reminded that I don’t like the feeling of not being competent.

Of course, my encounter with language incompetence mirrors a key reason we don’t set out on new quests. We stick to the known because we have mastered it. Or at least we think we have. It is comfortable. We know what to expect. In that knowing, we feel little danger.

Some might respond that they are perfectly happy where they are. Why sail toward the unknown when I’m content on these shores? Two reasons: 1) We are made to learn, grow, and evolve. 2) Comfort is transitory. Stability is a mirage.

At our core, we are made to change. Our natures are adaptive. We are excellent survivors. Through change and challenge, we learn. We get better. We become competent. We are happy when we feel mastery and therein lies comfort. This brings me to part two of the response above because things get dicey for us when we get comfortable.

Your comfort is transitory because there is no status quo. Whether you notice or not, things are shifting. Every day your world is changing. That flat, predictable sidewalk is being replaced continually by shifting sand. We feel mastery but it is temporary as the world moves on. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow and will very likely not work next year. The safe place that feels stable is a mirage.

Regardless of our desire to live within the comfort of the status quo, the world is acting upon us such that we cannot remain there. This means that if we are not taking those first faltering steps on our own somewhat frequently, the world is likely to throw us face first into the sand. The invitation will likely come unannounced and be executed unapologetically.

To change is to live. To seek change by putting yourself “in harm’s way” by virtue of learning, adventuring, and growing in new experiences is to proactively embrace the inevitable. It is to adopt a frame of mind that anticipates obstacles and opportunities in the midst of comfort. Taking those first faltering steps in any direction gives you momentum and helps you stay comfortable with discomfort.

Fortunately, embracing a bit of discomfort doesn’t have to mean perpetual disruption. Seeking change or a new opportunity doesn’t have to be a quest for upheaval. Small changes are perfectly fine. Little quests can work nicely. Placing yourself in the zone of incompetence from time to time reminds you of what it takes to begin again. It keeps your survival skills sharp as you practice the art of adaptation. The comfort of stability hides within your ability to navigate the unstable.

When the time comes for change, remember Cooper’s first steps on the beach. Unsteady. Uncomfortable. Incompetent. But not unprepared. Every learning experience leads to the next. Know that you will have to endure the unsettling sensation of being a novice before you can once again enjoy mastery. Be patient with yourself as you falter and stay the course. It is the hard won victories that remain the sweetest. From those first faltering steps come the surest.


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