The Ego Deflation Involved in Being a Beginner
New lawyer, new mom
I encountered this phrase in “The Artist’s Way,” an inspiring book on creativity by Julia Cameron. The author’s point was that often, we avoid exploring new territory to save ourselves from the “ego deflation involved in being a beginner.” I’d never heard it put this way, but the phrase deeply resonated with me as a career transition coach and veteran of two prior careers.
My first career was practicing law. After completing law school and passing the bar exam, I started my first associate position as a litigator. I was a beginner. Assignments took much longer to complete than they should have. I trudged through them, disappointed to discover all the practical skills they hadn’t taught in law school. But after a few years of experience and some wonderful mentors, I had a breakthrough. Things started to fall into place. Although I was far from an expert, I had a good grasp of the landscape and where to find answers when I needed them.
There were some high points, but after sixteen years, I no longer enjoyed the work. Frustrated with litigation practice and lacking opportunities to use some of my strongest skills, I decided to transition into lawyer training and development. I was a beginner again. When you start your first career, it’s challenging to feel like a beginner, but you expect it. When you start your second, it’s a little startling. Intellectually, you know you’ll start out knowing less and that it will take time to learn, but subconsciously, there’s a feeling that all of your prior experience should count and you shouldn’t really have to be a beginner again. In my case, although my prior experience was helpful, I had so much more to learn than I’d anticipated. I definitely experienced some ego deflation.
While I was familiar with the modalities for promoting professional growth, I knew next to nothing about organizational development, change management, or stakeholder management. It’s one thing to understand the structure and purposes of training, mentoring, and evaluation programs. It’s quite another to get an organization of people with differing (and sometimes opposing) agendas to accept a new program, a new process, or for that matter, an entirely new function in their firm.
I plodded through the early years, made mistakes, and began to second-guess my decision to change careers. I missed the confidence that arose from the experience and expertise I’d developed when practicing law. But after a few years and some help from a coach, things started to fall into place again.
After nine and a half years, I wondered how much impact I was having on the attorneys I served. Rather than continuing to tackle the challenges of developing people through organizational programs and systems, I wanted to have a more direct and personal impact on my clients’ lives.
So five years ago, I left my position and opened my coaching practice. I was a beginner again. Although I had an excellent coaching education and lots of “informal” coaching experience, I realized that once again, I had a long way to go. As I researched the websites of experienced, successful executive coaches, I was repeatedly reminded of all the certifications, credentials, and years of coaching experience I lacked.
Since opening my practice, I’ve gained experience with a wide variety of leadership and career coaching clients. I’ve also made mistakes and second guessed my decision to change careers again, longing to go back to familiar territory. But I continued to build my skills and knowledge through specialized coaching courses, certifications in additional tools, reciprocal coaching engagements, work with mentor coaches, and participation in coaching supervision groups. After five years, things have started to fall into place again. I still have far to go, but I’m not a beginner anymore.
It’s ironic – or maybe perfectly fitting – that part of my work involves helping others get over the fear of being a beginner again, to take a leap if they feel pulled in a new direction. It’s not for everyone; I envy those who find one career and enjoy it so much they never change. But for those who aren’t fulfilled and want something more, overcoming the fear of being a beginner is the key to freedom. Beginner-hood will only last so long.
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