Let Us Now Praise Newbies

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“Hi! I was just gifted a loom—I’m so excited to be a weaver! So . . . can someone explain how to weave?”

I am a member of several Facebook groups for weavers, where we go to ask questions and share our work. I have to admit when I see questions like the one above, from rank beginners, my first reaction is to roll my eyes and think, “Oh for heaven’s sake—go read a book! Take a class!”

Then I take a deep breath and remind myself how much newbies, newcomers to any craft or skill, bring to the rest of us.

I have been a complete novice myself recently, in the craft of weaving, and I am still struggling to learn a tiny fraction of what there is to know. My weekly sewing group includes a number of newbies—new to sewing, new to quilting.

Newbies have always been with us but, in days gone by, maybe they weren’t so obvious. A lot of us learned some basic skills in relative private, from others in our circle, by watching and emulating or by taking an organized class or reading. Those were the only options we had.

But now the Internet gives newbies easy access to knowledgeable and helpful people so their questions are public and their lack of knowledge and understanding are on view to us all.

And, though I will always think some newbies are being presumptuous in asking others to explain a difficult process in the space of a Facebook post, I really believe that these newbies are enhancing the craft world.

Are you a newbie at something, thinking about picking up knitting needles or sitting down to a sewing machine for the first time? Trying to learn a new set of skills, like hooking a rug or soldering silver? Surrounded, it seems, by people who already know the ins and outs, know the vocabulary, seem comfortable and calm in the realm where you feel edgy and inadequate?

I want to tell you how valuable you are!

  1. You are a source of amusement

Yes, it probably sounds harsh but let’s get it out of the way first—I am amused every day by a dilemma posed by a newbie. I laugh at the stories they tell about themselves and their confusion. They use the vocabulary wrong and make mistakes of the most basic kind. I am laughing with them, not at them—I see myself in their blunders.

  1. You remind us of the enthusiasm and joy of starting

The excitement newbies feel is energizing. This one just got her first loom, that one bought fabric for her first quilt. They have not yet felt the slings and arrows of outrageous craft fails. They are intoxicated with possibilities—and help me remember that feeling.

  1. You give us a chance to teach and feel smart

With novices, it always seems that, no matter how little I know, there’s someone who knows less. That gives me the heady feeling of having something I can share and teach.

  1. You allow us to feel competent and remind us how far we’ve come

There’s nothing like a newbie to remind you how much progress you’ve made, that you’re learning and growing. When I read the questions asked by newbies, I am pleasantly surprised when I know the answers to questions that would’ve been mysteries a few months ago. I feel competent and motivated to keep learning.

  1. You ask the questions we may not be comfortable asking.

I am one of those people who loathes looking foolish or incompetent. I hate to ask questions, to expose my ignorance. Newbies ask questions with abandon and I sit and listen carefully to the answer . . . and learn.

So, newbies, I say to you—keep starting new things.

Keep dreaming of being good at something that you have never tried.

Keep asking every question that pops into your mind!

Recognize the limitations of learning complex skills from Facebook posts or from one helpful friend and take advantage of all the resources available to you.

But don’t hesitate to start because the people around you seem so sure of themselves and the skills so daunting.

You are enriching the conversation by starting a new craft; you are bringing so much to the discussion.


Woven Together

The weaving continues.

We pursue it with the zeal of converts.

The fact that we are learning together adds to the enjoyment.

We talk about ideas and plans.

We bring different perspectives to solving problems, and four hands to the task make some chores far easier.

We definitely have different approaches. He tends toward complicated patterns and lots of bright colors. He wants to make exuberant table runners. He is bold and fearless.

IMG_8777IMG_8048I tend toward wanting to learn about different fibers and classic designs—twills herringbones, stripes. I want to make tidy dishtowels and scarves. I am methodical and want things just so.IMG_7988IMG_8789We approach weaving as we have so many things over 25 years—on equal terms, balancing the load, each with our own strengths, respecting what the other does better.

Strong fabric depends on warp and weft. Woven together.

Learning a New Skill 202—I Knew I Could!

IMG_6666Our last class session on the learning process! To review, we’ve discussed the first three stages of the learning process—unconscious incompetence, conscious incompetence, and conscious competence.

The final stage in the learning process is unconscious competence and, no, that doesn’t mean you’ve gotten so good that you pass out from joy!

Unconscious competence comes from learning something well enough that it becomes second nature to you; you’ve gotten to the point where you can engage in the behavior and actually let your mind wander, you can let the fierce concentration go.

Interestingly, while you don’t have to think so much about completing the task, you’ll find you can also think MORE, about how to improve or improvise, to be creative and make the task your own. Sometimes, I’ll hear American football quarterbacks talking about how, at some point in their development, the game “slows down” for them. Of course, it doesn’t really. But they have reached the stage of unconscious competence, where everything seems easier and it all flows smoothly and they are calm and can think through their next move.

Think of learning to ride a bike (but only if you know how to ride one!) When you first learned, you had to really think about balancing and pedaling and pointing the bike in the right direction. You might have panicked if you began to lose balance or a dog ran nearby.

At some point, you probably got to the point where you could just jump on the bike and go and it became so easy you could start to work on riding with no hands or popping wheelies—the game had slowed down for you.

In fact, I think that when we reach the stage of unconscious competence, we’re at the point where we have so internalized the skill that we can go back, years later, and pick the skill up again—and it comes back to us, “just like riding a bike.”

Sometimes it’s hard to recognize the stage of unconscious incompetence in what we do because, as we reach it, we also set our goals higher and then have to concentrate again. So, as I got better and better at tempering chocolate and could dip candies in it without drama and angst, I then wanted to try harder candy-making skills and put myself right back at the conscious incompetence stage. Someday, maybe I’ll tell you about the chocolate-covered cherry cordials. Or maybe not.

I never reached anything approaching the unconscious competence stage with skating. God knows I wanted to but it wasn’t to be.

Sometimes we fail to reach the stage of unconscious competence, not because the task is hard and beyond our ability, but because we don’t care enough to. Most of my public speaking students were perfectly happy to be at the conscious competence stage and were unlikely to move beyond it unless they found lots of places to practice their new-found skills. At the end of the semester, I would urge them to take an upper-level course or to seek out opportunities to give speeches. They clearly thought these ideas were laughable!

I, on the other hand, haven’t given a public presentation in three years, since I retired. But, since I followed the principles I taught my students and had achieved a state of unconscious competence with the whole basic process, I have no doubt it would all come back to me, just like riding a bike!

In what skills have you achieved the stage of unconscious competence? Doesn’t it feel good?!

So, to review for the exam:

There are 4 stages of learning a new process.

When my husband and I saw the big loom at a garage sale, at a great price, we said, “Weaving will be easy! Let’s buy it!” UNCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE (big time!).

When we opened the book that came with the loom, and tried to make sense of reading it, we experienced the dawning of CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE and the realization that we had no business owning a loom.

Since we took a basic weaving class and progressed to a loom class, every session has become a baby step toward CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE. By concentrating and getting good instruction, we are managing to weave. But it comes at a price—hard work, frustration, shoulder and neck muscles that may never relax. And, in every session, higher-level skills are hinted at that sound very daunting and scary right about now!

Will we ever reach UNCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE? That remains to be seen. Right now, we’re still hopeful and enthusiastic but it won’t come fast.

That’s it! You’ve been a lovely class. When you’re getting frustrated by learning a new skill, remember that you’re not alone and remember that all learning is a process, and will take time and perseverance! Enjoy the process!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International

Learning a New Skill 201—I Think I Can . . .

IMG_6662Good morning, class. We’ve been discussing the learning process* that each of us goes through when we attempt a new skill. To review, we’ve discussed the first two stages of the learning process—unconscious incompetence and conscious incompetence. The third stage of the learning process is that of “conscious competence.” This is an exhilarating yet often still frustrating stage.

It’s exciting because you realize, hey, I can do this! It’s frustrating because you do it but not easily and certainly not with any aplomb. In fact, even though you are successful once, doesn’t mean you will be the next time you try. And, still, the hint of success may be intoxicating enough to keep you plugging along!

When I was in early stages of candy making, and I realized that, when all the stars were aligned I could actually do it, I took notes on everything. I made notes ahead of time about every step so I didn’t forget any. I made notes after about temperature and humidity and tried to count and systematize everything, in order to be able to do it again. There was nothing relaxing or even fun about it, except I could see I was improving, usually. Some days, though, were a giant step back.

To be fair to myself, even in skating, I did get to the point of conscious competence with some little bitty aspects of it. I didn’t remain paralyzed. I could make it around the rink, I could even skate backwards a little and, perhaps most importantly, I could stop before I ran over small children.

But I could never do any of it without intense concentration. I wanted to fly across the ice, hair streaming and a big smile, but instead I always had a pained expression on my face.

I watched my students experience the joy of giving a really good speech, knowing the satisfaction of nailing it and then, the next time, foundering because they lost focus or got a little cocky and didn’t rehearse as much, or because a mistake threw them off and they couldn’t find their place.

The joy of competence, the agony of having to THINK about it so much.

Some people stall at this stage of development because, although they are becoming competent at a skill, it simply is not any fun. The whole process is still demanding, outcomes are uncertain, teachers start pushing harder—is it worth it?

And, of course, it’s okay to decide something is not worth the time and energy—we don’t have to become expert at every single thing we do. I apologize to all the crocheters out there but, once I got to the conscious competence stage, I realized that crocheting simply didn’t move me. I didn’t care if I ever got better so, guess what, I never did!

On the other hand, in order to stick with the learning process, and power through the hopeful-yet-frustrating stage of conscious competence, it helps a lot to focus on areas of improvement. Since most skills are made up of multiple elements, consciously remind yourself of which elements you’re mastering.

I had a student once, all in all a very good public speaker. She wanted to become very good and, because she wanted it so much, she and I set very high goals. For a while, she really struggled and got discouraged, looking at all the mistakes she was making. Then one day, she said to me, “Tell me what I’m doing right.”

That moment became a breakthrough for her and also, significantly, for me, as a teacher. There was so much she was doing really well! Once she realized how far she had come, she had new confidence and resolve in her ability to continue to improve.

When you’re getting discouraged, step back and tell yourself what you’re doing right!

Are you currently at the stage of “conscious competence” in learning a new skill? What are you getting better at? (Let’s not always see the same hands, please!)

Will you keep at it until you reach the next stage?


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International

Learning a New Skill 102—Can I?

scrabble stage 2Good morning class! Last time, we talked about the learning process* and found that there are four stages, the first of which is “unconscious incompetence.” If you weren’t here for the last class, you might to review the notes from that session.

The next stage, “conscious incompetence,” comes when you decide you want to learn this new skill, get started on it, and hit the “Holy moley, this is HARD” stage. At this stage you know what you don’t know.

When chocolate is on the ceiling and your candy looks like it belongs in the cat’s litter box.

When you put on skates and get on the ice and are paralyzed. Simply cannot move at all.

When you get in front of an audience, having glibly thought you’d just say whatever came to mind, and absolutely nothing comes to mind.

This is the comeuppance stage, where it becomes all too painfully, soul-crushingly clear just how bad you are at something. You learn that what you are undertaking is hard, often really hard, and that you are not a prodigy.

The stage of conscious incompetence is probably the critical stage, where the die is cast, regarding whether you learn your new skill or give up on it.

The first time I tempered chocolate, and tried to do something with it, was an undeniable disaster. I was tense, it took longer than I thought it should, I was overcome by self-doubt. But, eventually, I got good at it.

I took skating lessons for a couple years, from a good skater who was also a very good teacher. I learned immediately just how incredibly bad I was going to be and how hard it was. I never really learned, despite two years of trying.

Some of my students, over the course of one semester, became very competent and confident speakers. They could speak, in an engaging manner, for 10 minutes, with minimal notes and have fun doing it. Other students ended the semester, in some ways, in worse shape than they began.

So, what makes the difference whether one moves beyond the conscious incompetence stage?

It seems to me there are several factors:

One of these is your level of confidence in your ability to be good at something. With the candy making, I was just sure it would come to me in the end. I’m a good baker, I’d made other difficult candy, like caramels, and I assumed I would become the goddess of all things chocolate!

The skating was another matter. I’m one who has always thought of myself as simply not athletic. I was late to learning to skip and to jump rope. I can’t do a cartwheel. I never played a sport. So, when I struggled to learn to skate, my message to myself was, “You’re never going to be able to do this. Why try?” And, yes, I do know the concept of “self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Of course, these attitudes affected my students, too. Those who were performers in another arenas often had more confidence in their ability to be good speakers (and were occasionally over-confident, which got in the way of their learning, too). If they weren’t great in the first speech, they picked themselves up and dusted themselves off and prepared to improve. Other students labeled themselves as shy or had had a bad experience in a church recital or something in the distant past. They were way more likely to struggle to make progress. Still others, as I mentioned, didn’t see the value of the undertaking so didn’t try at all.

A second factor of success in getting beyond the conscious incompetence stage is how complicated and multi-faceted the new skill is. Do you already know how to do some pieces of the process or is everything entirely new? How many different and new mini-tasks need to be mastered in order to master the whole?

Learning something entirely new, as an adult, is really difficult. The easier and simpler the process, the more likely we are to be successful. When all is said and done, candy making isn’t really all that hard.

Skating on the other hand—oy! It had to do with overall fitness, with posture, with the stroke of the blade, with a willingness to go fast (eek!), with holding your arms in correct positions—so many things to remember and to coordinate and none of them were natural to me.

My student speakers felt the same way—so much to remember! The speech needed an introduction, which should accomplish 5 purposes, a body, with three main points, a conclusion that needed to do three things to be effective. They were supposed to meet a strict time limit, make eye contact, quote outside sources, and sound natural and conversational while doing all this! I taught it and it even sounds daunting to me! I think the harder a task and the longer it takes to master it, the less likely people are to persevere—they have to be very highly motivated.

So, the third factor in moving beyond the stage of conscious incompetence is how much you value what you’re trying to learn. Are you really, really committed to learning? If learning a new skill will improve your life, make you happier, earn you more money, help you achieve other important goals, you’re more likely to persevere and work really hard and keep going even when things get rough.

Candy-making, as I said, wasn’t that hard so perseverance wasn’t an issue. Besides, even the candy that didn’t look pretty still tasted like chocolate and caramels so persevering had benefits!

I guess, when all was said and done, skating didn’t mean enough to me. I moved away from my teacher and my college’s lovely rink. After two years, I still couldn’t do a reliable front crossover without hyperventilating. I didn’t have anyone to go skating with. It just wasn’t worth the effort anymore.

As far as my former students are concerned, I sometimes wonder about the ones who didn’t value learning to give a decent speech because they didn’t think they were ever going to need it. I bet many of them later wished they’d paid more attention in class or went out and took a refresher course, when they found just how much of their adult success depended on their ability to express themselves reasonably well in a public setting.

When attitude and perseverance and hard work all come together, most people who are really committed to learning a skill will reach the third stage of learning, that of conscious competence.

Are there skills, right now, where you’d say you are at the conscious incompetence stage? Your homework is to share, in the comments, an area of conscious incompetence (you know that you DON’T know how to do something but you’re starting to try to learn) with the rest of the class.

See you in class on Monday–have a great weekend!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International


Learning a New Skill 101: Do I Need To?

--photo by Aaron Harmon

photo by Aaron Harmon

You make things. So you certainly have had the experience of learning a new craft or skill and experiencing complete frustration—we’re talking swear-out-loud, fling-tools-to-the-floor frustration. You may even have been tempted to quit.

We see people around us knitting like the wind, or laying down a perfect row of hand-quilting stitches, or baking the perfect piecrust, and we get discouraged by our ineptitude. We tell ourselves that we aren’t talented, we’re too clumsy, we’re all thumbs.

I’m in the process of learning something entirely new for the first time in a long while! I’m learning to weave. The slowness and awkwardness of the work has reminded me of the bumps along the road to learning a new skill and of a theory I learned a long time ago, which helped me to reassure myself that this very frustrating, “all thumbs” stage is temporary.

I’m hoping that, as you read through these stages, you can apply them to your own experience and get some insight to ways they apply.

So, I’m going to get all teacherly on you and take you through the four stages of the learning process.* Because I know long, wordy blogs get cumbersome and you’re a busy person, I’m going to break my thoughts up over four “class periods” and provide lots of examples so maybe you’ll be able relate this to your own experience and, then, share your own examples with the class.

I hope you’ll read along, even if you already are familiar with these ideas—I know it has helped me, with my weaving experience, to refresh my mind on this subject.

Unconscious incompetence—You don’t know what you don’t know

The first stage of the learning process is called unconscious incompetence. At this stage we are blissfully ignorant of our inability to do something and, because experts make it look easy, we might assume it’ll be easy for us, too. Alternatively, at the unconscious incompetence stage, a person might even deny that the skill in question has any value or is worth learning.

When I was a kid I read a book about Thomas Edison who, as a young person himself, experimented with electricity, which led to great things. Well, I had a lamp in my bedroom that didn’t work. So I got a screwdriver and figured, if Thomas Edison could do it, so could I. I stuck that screwdriver into the workings of that lamp and fried the fuses in our house. If I hadn’t been holding onto the plastic grip, I might not be writing to you today! Unconscious incompetent.

When I started making candy, I figured that, since I could read instructions and I had a good set of instructions, it would be no problem to learn to temper chocolate and dip candy in it. Unconscious incompetent.

When I wanted to learn to ice skate, I figured that, if other people could manage double axels and skating backwards, I could certainly manage to simply skate around a rink without incident. Unconscious incompetent.

When my college students signed up for their course in public speaking, many assumed that, because they had been talking their whole lives, they’d instantly be good at public speaking. Others felt quite confident that they would never, ever put themselves in a position to have to give a speech and couldn’t see why they should have to take the course. Unconscious incompetents, one and all.

Well. Weren’t we all ignorant and weren’t we just blissful in that state?

I soon learned that I couldn’t do any of those things I thought I would be able to. Both dipping chocolates and skating were a lot harder than they looked and I was a lot more awkward than I could ever have imagined. I had moved, already, into the stage of conscious incompetence. We’ll talk abut that stage soon!

It’s hard for me to ask you to think about your areas of unconscious incompetence—how would you know if you don’t know, right? But maybe, upon reflection, you can remember a time when it suddenly dawned on you that you really didn’t have a clue what you were doing.

Be sure to attend class tomorrow—there will be homework!


* developed by Noel Burch, in the 1970s, for his employer, Gordon Training International