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Learning in Public
On being a beginner
Our small town has a small school that sits in the smallest classification for athletics and extra-curricular activities: 1A. Out of 6 classifications, we are at the bottom. The school is K-12 on one campus, and though we chose to homeschool all our children, it wasn’t because this particular public school was “bad”. They’re doing some great things.
Our kids all participated in sports at the school—a privilege many homeschoolers don’t have. This year the school started a boys’ baseball program for the first time in decades, and most of the boys, including our son, have never played the sport. We are a football school, playing an eight man version of the game that is fast and rough, but baseball is new to almost everyone here and we have a lot to learn.1 Sometimes learning is fun and sometimes it’s just plain humbling, especially when you are learning in public.
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These boys, several of them seniors, had to jump in to a new sport in a league with recent state champions, Davids among Goliaths, and learn the mechanics and rules and style of a game foreign to our town. Football is second nature here. Baseball is weird. There’s not much running, very little physical contact, and you score points one at a time.
I told Ethan how proud I am of him for being willing to jump in to something new. Thankfully, he has a whole crew of teammates who are also mostly beginners, but he had to choose to throw his lot in with them. They might lose every game, but they will definitely improve.
Sometimes being a beginner equals less pressure, if we can view it that way.
No one is expecting these boys to win the league or advance to state playoffs. No one is thinking about baseball scholarships. Other teams will not be scouting us. There is an ease when you realize no one has expectations. Whatever good thing you do will be a surprise.
It’s hard to learn in public, though.
We are a little more than a year into our public learning as store owners, and we are nowhere near the mastery we hoped for. Every week it feels like the curriculum changes and we learn new things, make changes, add and subtract, and sometimes I admit I’m embarrassed to be a beginner in this business. I have to ask questions and get the definitions of terms that people in the industry know as shorthand. They use acronyms for things and act like it’s common knowledge. I ask for definitions and they stumble a bit, because when you know something like the back of your hand, it can be hard to put it into words for a novice.
We took a big leap in this deli and market project and we knew it from the beginning, but we really know it now. The difference between us and the baseball team—both of us beginners—is that people expect a little more from a business. They expect you’ll have it all together because you are serving the public, and the public wants to be served well.
We keep looking at the good side and listing the positives, which (this week, at least; my mood on this changes week to week) far outweigh the negatives. Many of the goals we set out to accomplish with this business have been achieved, and we know it from the positive feedback of friends and strangers that stop in our store. We know it by the numbers. We know it by the meetings and coffee dates we see happening, and by the regulars—who forgive us our mistakes and keep coming back. We are beginners, learning and practicing in public, and we have a pretty solid cheering section that keeps us encouraged.
To be filled with such beauty that all I want to do is give it back to the world.
Learning in public is also a good analogy for this writing life, where I put words into the world without the help of an editor or the confidence of a publisher’s seal of approval. Eleven years ago I found an outlet for my words on my first Wordpress blog, eventually migrating to Squarespace, and now Substack. Each move makes me a beginner again and I learn the technology as I go. I’ve learned a lot through blogging—craft, technology, industry customs, genres, writing processes—and most lessons have come through the mistakes I keep making.
But things are always changing and all I know to do is to keep writing, keep learning, keep being willing to make mistakes. There are no scouts, no expectations except to finish some things. I want to finish and not quit, learn and grow, and prove that you don’t need to be an expert in order to enjoy something2. In fact, maybe amateurs enjoy a thing even more.
“I know too, how it feels to have moments when everything is ministering to me, when I am filled with such beauty, that all I want to do is give it back to the world. This is why I choose writing and why I believe God chose to make me willing to write.” from Callie Feyen
There is a time and place for professionals, but we each need to have something we’re willing to do for the love of it, even if it means we learn to do it in public—mistakes, doubts, and all.
For instance: I’ve learned, thankfully by observation and not experience, not to park in foul ball territory. Noted.
amateur (n.) 1784, from French amateur "one who loves, lover" (16c., restored from Old French ameour), from Latin amatorem (nominative amator) "lover, friend," agent noun from amatus, past participle of amare "to love"