The Art of Sucking: Stories From the Adult Beginner

The Art of Sucking: Stories From the Adult Beginner

‘Let’s try it again’, my partner says optimistically from the passenger seat. My knuckles whiten around the steering wheel. I have had my driver’s license for five years, sat in all kinds of hideous traffic, broken down on Punt Road in peak hour, and collided with a car in front of me (I blame the distracting billboard nearby). I’ve watched and chased down my vehicle as it was towed away to car jail and, like many of you I’m sure, paid thousands of dollars for every kind of car fine and ticket. Nevertheless, as I sit in the drivers seat of my boyfriend’s stationary car on a backroad somewhere between Daylesford and Trentham, today driving feels to be a whole new kind of demoralising. I ignite the engine once more and accelerate into a reverse. ‘Ride the clutch!’, my partner yells encouragingly, ‘yes, ride it!’. I have no idea what he means and so, I accelerate harder. The car stalls and the longest list of swear words falls out of my mouth, punctuating the thick country calm.

In a success-oriented world, we have been taught to preserve the ego at all costs

You see, last Monday, when we booked our overseas plane tickets, I promised I would learn to operate a manual car by the time we land in Italy in three months’ time. ‘Let’s try again’, my partner says for the fourth time. I stare at him trying to discern the slightest bit of frustration, but his disposition, much to my irritation, is completely calm. ‘No’, I say, ‘I’m done, this is ridiculous…This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, and I’ll never learn’. He reminds me that it was me who advocated for Italy, the land of manual vehicles, and that he would not be the sole driver for our full year abroad. A wave of resentment swallows me, which, in retrospect, I recognise is really a symptom of my intolerance for failure and the sheer discomfort of being inadequate at something. This is a common experience for adults having a go at a new task. This kind of reaction has to do with saving face and preserving how we are perceived by others, in this all too often success-orientated world. And, it is also to protect our ego and how we perceive ourselves. It is not fun to feel incompetent, and in fact, it is very uncomfortable to be bad at something.

Our worth is not conditional on our achievements

Pioneer of schema therapy, Jeff Young, theorised that every individual has a series of ‘schemas’ or core beliefs which we hold about ourselves, the world and others, which are informed by our childhood experiences. According to Young, there are 16 most common schemas, and every adult is said to have between three and five. One of the sixteen Schemas, Unrelenting Standards, is the belief that you need to be the best, always striving for perfection and that you must avoid mistakes. From my observations and personal experience, I understand this to perhaps describe one of the core beliefs of western society, where we are collectively conditioned to fear failure. From a young age, we are encouraged to ‘locate our passion’ or ‘set a goal’ and work hard to achieve that goal, that is, to master and commodify the passion. We have been socialised to believe our worth is conditional on our achievements or lack thereof (you can read more on how this can impact motivation also, here). This promotes an unhealthy obsession with achievement and success and is the reason why work life balance feels unachievable to many. On an individual level, this schema means that we are afraid to try new things, as a lack of mastery is either considered a waste of time, or a catastrophic shortcoming of our being. Inadequacy is an awkward and uncomfortable state to linger in, and so often, nobody bothers to linger long enough in this state in order to give the new task a proper go.

There is a lot of stigma around the adult beginner

The adult beginner is a rarity. I’m not entirely sure why, how or by whom the arbitrary cut off-age of late adolescence was agreed upon, as the unspoken limit for trying new things. But is there really such a thing as ‘too-old’ to start playing the drums, paint or master the art of French cooking? Recently, when I approached adults with this hypothetical, they shook their head in defiance insisting that, ‘no way’, there is no such thing. While pleased with this reply, I also don’t think they’d be as enthusiastic if I were thrusting the drum-sticks or paint-brushes into their hands. Often for adults, skills that are socially acceptable or praised are those that we excel at, or at least those which enable us to make more money. This is not to say that income-generating skills are not important – they certainly are – however, are they really that much more deserving of our attention than knowledge generating activities and tasks? We were all ‘incompetent’ children once, then ‘mediocre’ adolescents, and therefore everything we know and have mastered today started from a state of blank-slate-badness. Though, why is it that as we get older our inner child becomes increasingly harder to access?

For children, inadequacy is a familiar feeling that doesn’t seem to bother them. There are biological reasons as to why learning as a child is easier than as an adult. It primarily comes down to the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is the region behind the forehead that connects to almost every other part of the brain. The PFC is the central executive, the powerhouse, responsible for major executive functions like attention, self-control, and reasoning. It is the PFC that enables us to function as rational and mature adults. Contrary to this, children have an underdeveloped PFC. It is this underdeveloped PFC that enables children to learn new information like language or music without so much worry about long-term consequences, the potential financial benefits or consequences, or how socially acceptable these skills will seem to others. In other words, the very rationality and logic of the adult PFC seems to get in the way of our intuitive learning.

The cognitive dissonance of the ‘to do soon’ list

Beyond the way we have been socialised to resist or avoid inadequacy, there are a series of legitimate reasons why trying new things as an adult is avoided and thus, a little taboo. Most salient is our generally gross lack of time, as adults. If it is already impossible to fit in time to exercise, socialise and get your eight hours of sleep, how on earth am I supposed to learn to speak Italian and a drive manual vehicle as well? Pair this lack of time with a lack of motivation, coupled with an abundance of distraction possibilities; it’s no wonder we may feel defeated before we even start. So, you don’t start. The new hobby or skill remains on the ‘to do soon’ list.

If you ask the experts about motivation, they will say you must physically schedule the anticipated task into your diary, otherwise it will be the first thing to go when things start to feel too much. It doesn’t need to take up much of the schedule, and in fact it can be helpful to start by setting small, achievable steps such as learning one new word in a new language every couple of days. Additionally, it can be helpful to pair new activities with other mandatory, mundane tasks like listening to a podcast while doing laundry, or reading a book on your commute to work. In addition to these barriers, however, humans are innately impatient beings when it comes to progress (and particularly, observable progress). We live in the twenty first century of uber-convenience and so, we have zero patience. In the same way my year seven English teacher implored me to never ditch a novel before I’ve given it an 80-page chance, it is important to commit to any new skill for at least three months, otherwise your evaluation of it might be a little superficial.

Adult learning can reduce or slow down natural neuro-degeneration

There is a long list of benefits to learning a new skill. For example, it is one way to ensure you keep a sharp mind as your body enters natural ‘senescence’; a biological term for the neurodegeneration associated with aging. In the same way one visits the gym to develop muscle mass on the arms, legs or abdomen, the term ‘use-dependant cortical reorganisation’ is now used by scientists to describe the way neural pathways that are used most regularly tend to strengthen, and this can be true for old and new pathways. Each pathway build and strengthened represents something new having been learnt. Another term, neurogenesis, also often comes up in scientific explanations of learning. Neurogenesis refers to brain’s generation of new neurons – the more neurons, the easier and quicker it is for us to access certain neural pathways. When starting to learn a the new task, there may be no related neural pathways, however as we return to the task again and again, a pathway starts to form – a memory and understanding of how to engage in the task.

The first aha moment – for me, perhaps reflected in recognising when I must ‘ride the clutch’ and successfully doing so – reflects the formation of a neural pathway. The more varied adult learning you engage in, the easier new skill acquisition becomes, as you are effectively training your brain to become more adaptable. There is also a profound sense of accomplishment that comes from acquiring a new skill. I find myself experiencing genuine pride as I navigate the Italian language and feel myself progress from nonsensical, to bad, to less bad, to mediocre. The rush of dopamine from small language wins is addictive and exhilarating. Adult learning is an opportunity to develop your self-confidence and provides you with a nuanced understanding of your specific strengths and abilities, in a way that mindlessly performing something you’re competent at already, never could. This is not to mention the great respect and appreciation you develop for the discipline you are dipping your toe into, as well as for those who have explored and mastered it already.

Trying something new is admirable and brave, and you’ve got nothing to lose!

While I’m not a huge fan of the new year’s resolution, perhaps the early months of the year are an opportunity to consider a new skillset. Pick something you’re genuinely curious about, as this is an excellent initial motivator that will tide you over until the dopamine hits start to filter in. Finally, prior to setting out, or when you’re two weeks in and wanting to throw in the towel, remind yourself of the following four truths:

  1. Accept that you must suck at the start. Your interior monologue is likely to become negative to begin with, throwing you statements such as, “what on earth am I doing?”; “this is so embarrassing!”; and “I have better things I should be doing!”. But this is normal, and you can prepare for this by accepting you will, and actually MUST be bad to start with. Remember that anyone you know who is good at anything, was bad at the beginning. And then believe in your ability to get better – Instead of “I am a failure”, think: “I haven’t succeeded YET”.
  2. Build and bridge from what you know. Pay attention to the way the new skill is relevant to knowledge you have already consolidated and how you may be able to enmesh them. Nothing is original, everything is a deviation or copy, so chances are there is going to be an overlap in technique, materials, purpose or method.
  3. Find motivation, prepare for many moments of wanting to give up and appease these feelings in the way of small goal setting. For example, if I can commit one useful phrase or verb to memory a week, I get the dopamine hit and feel I am doing well. Another easy way to stay motivated is to learn with or alongside a friend. Whether for competition, support or simply to hold each other accountable, it works.
  4. Remember that mastery is not the goal here, that you do not have to be a magnificent, fluent or genius at this thing. Remember that brilliance is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Happy holidays, and happy sucking to all!


To read more on how to set positive intentions and engage in new tasks, check out our blog post on New Years Resolutions and Values.

If you would like support in approaching a new task, and don’t know where to begin, one of our friendly psychologists may be able to help you plan your next steps. You can contact us to book in an appointment, here.