Soapbox — Zen and the Art of Making

Lately I’ve been thinking about how much fun it is when you’re a beginner at something as opposed to being an expert. At some point, we all become experts at one thing or another. I really want to avoid being an expert in some things, only so I can continually look forward to learning more without the burden of being an expert. Being an expert means your journey is somewhat over.

A beginner can imagine more than an expert because a beginner doesn’t see constraints yet. Kids are the same way — they approach things with an open mind because they haven’t been told “you can’t do that” yet. Beginners aren’t billing someone for their time — it’s not a job, and time doesn’t matter. Beginners (and kids) usually have more time than money. Beginners aren’t collecting trophies (yet) — they’re exploring. If you don’t know the boundaries of something, for a brief time your ideas are boundless.

Experts stay still; beginners are constantly moving. An expert can point out the difficulty in every project, while the beginner can only see possibilities (and later, many ways to make mistakes). The reward for beginners is not the stuff they make, it’s the person they become because of the stuff they make and share. Beginners need to practice a lot; experts need to talk more than practice. Beginners do very simple things before they understand what they are doing. Experts struggle to make things simple because they want to put everything they know into something, to demonstrate their expertise.

Beginners share their mistakes; experts hide them. Knowledge is one of the few things that doesn’t diminish the more you share it. I probably read about 1,000 messages a day across mailing lists, forums, customer support emails, Google+, Twitter, and more. Beginners can celebrate failure while experts rarely admit it. For a beginner, all the obstacles, failures, and challenges are the path ahead. Beginners usually don’t have any fear; they just make things — maybe it doesn’t work out, maybe it does — but they don’t have the same risk aversion experts tend to have.

Beginners get the satisfaction of solving many small problems that are wonderful milestones to keep motivated. Experts build bigger and for longer, so when something goes wrong it can really crash hard. The little problems a beginner solves are like weeds in a garden: you find them and use them for mulch — they’re fuel. Eventually you might have a manicured estate, but I think the small garden is more fun and approachable. More people can participate because the fence is lower, or not there at all.

Once you get enough experts together, that’s when the infighting usually starts. Even The Beatles fought with each other about who was the best. Experts start to see the tiniest differences between each other and (usually) fork their efforts. It might be, over the phrasing or titles of efforts, what licenses they use or don’t use, who is more pure than someone else. Beginners don’t know enough to care about these things yet — it’s the freedom beginners enjoy, even if it’s just for a short while. Beginners tend to see what they have in common with each other; experts can only see the differences. Many experts don’t want to share their knowledge, and beginners don’t have anything to share yet other than encouragement and enthusiasm for other beginners. Experts like to defeat each other, often publicly; beginners conquer themselves and their own challenges, and the experience cannot be taken away by anyone. Beginners don’t have strong opinions — they can’t effectively bother each other yet.

Beginners can take more risks than experts — they start with zero, so there’s nothing to lose. Experts worry that if they’re experts in one thing, they’ll need to be experts in other things, otherwise their expertise could be questioned. For experts a lot of things are easy because they’ve done them so many times. Experts become impatient (with themselves and with others); beginners are patient and brave, because they don’t yet know it will become easy. Experts have pride; beginners can’t deceive themselves so easily.

Now is a fantastic time to start out making things. With 3D printers, laser cutters, open source hardware, TechShops, hackerspaces, and Maker Faires there’s never been a better time. I’m sure every generation says that, but I really do think it’s true. Starting out now, you get to explore more, faster, cheaper, and with more people. This is all new stuff too — it’s hard for anyone to be an expert yet. This phenomenon happened with homebrew computers, and it happened with the web. In the maker world, we’re all still figuring a lot of this out. There’s still plenty of time before we’re all experts.

Some of the most talented and prolific people I know have dozens of interests and hobbies. When I ask them about this, the response is usually something like, “I love to learn.” I think new discoveries and the joys of learning are the crux of this beginner thing

I’ve been thinking about. Sure, when you’ve mastered something it’s valuable, but then part of your journey is over — you’ve arrived, and the trick is to find something you’ll always have a sense of wonder about. It’s possible to be an expert but still retain the mind of a beginner. It’s hard, but the best experts can do it. In making things, in art, science, engineering, you can always be a beginner about something you’re doing — the fields are too vast to know it all.

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