Feel Like a Fool

I’m learning how to learn again.

Recently, after thinking about it for years, I decided to learn to play a stand-up bass. I found a little-used instrument online, bought it, and for the past month, have begun to realize what a great teacher the process of learning something totally new can be.

When I picked up this intimidating big violin for the first time, I was amazed how much I didn’t know: I didn’t know how to keep from hurting the bulky instrument when I picked it up. Can I lift it by the neck, or will that detune it? Does it hurt to pick it up by the f-holes? Once I had it standing up, I didn’t know how to hold and balance it so it wouldn’t fall over while I played it. I didn’t know how to find each of the four strings, and what they would sound like when I did. I didn’t know how to press the string against the neck to make a note without twisting the instrument or forgetting where my left thumb should be, or…oh yeah, not neglecting the proper right hand position in the process.

When done playing, should I lay the instrument on its side, or is it better to place it on its back – or prop it against the wall? I had dozens of questions.

This wonderful process of discovery is a great teaching for anyone; if we pay attention, we will undoubtedly observe that our ego soon wants to run off to more advanced stuff, wanting to immediately play like Jaco Pastorius, Edgar Meyer or Todd Phillips, when in fact, we first need to slowly crawl like a baby. We teach ourselves something as complex as a new instrument just by slowly repeating the basics over and over, developing muscle memory through that repetition. We learn new habits in the process of paying close attention to countless subtleties and nuances – and of course, listening completely and honestly while fully engaged in the moment.

We really only “know” a few things in a narrow niche. So how do we learn something new like making a pleasant sound come from an empty wooden box with four strings so that it the strings don’t buzz, and the notes aren’t sharp or flat? There are no keys, frets or “press here” markings on a stand-up bass. How do I relax and hold my arms, shoulders, hands and fingers without creating stress and fatigue? How do I keep that steady rhythm that bass players are expected to provide their fellow band members while managing so many little things…?

Does any of this sound like our first few hours in an airplane, or a new type aircraft – or better yet, something as complex as flying a helicopter?

I’m loving this process of going back to the beginning, to a place where I am without comfort and the familiar, where I must give up that ubiquitous place of non-learning called, “I know….” It’s certainly giving me a new appreciation for the complex and delicate process we humans learn as I fly with my current helicopter instrument student.

If I can make a recommendation to all pilots – especially flight instructors – go find something new to learn, something you’ve never done before. Not something that is “kinda like” what we do every day; something completely new. Become a rank beginner.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t simply seek a different kind of flying or a different aircraft; that’s valuable too. But to get the most out of this teaching, one needs to get completely out of the “yeah, this is a lot like…” mode in which we mostly live, and jump fully into a place where “I don’t know ANYTHING about this…” Face your fear of being a fool, that feeling of falling into the abyss of unknowns; accept that “I suck at this.”

The rewards are in that discomfort. There is magic and a possible new self in that Artful journey.

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