Keith Humphreys: Rough Beginnings

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Keith Humphreys says adults pay the price in humiliation if they are a beginner at learning new things.

Taking classes for beginners taught me how hard we make it to be a beginner.

I first learned this at a “beginner” horse-back riding class at a Bay Area community college, which I selected over the “intermediate” and “expert” levels. The first day’s icebreaker was to describe our experience with horses. “None,” I said blandly, puzzled at the question.

The next student said she had grown up on a ranch. The next after her had ridden competitively through high school but, you know, he felt out of practice. My anxiety rising, I wondered if the expert class was attended by John Velasquez…or did he go for intermediate because his last Kentucky Derby win was over 18 months ago?

I was the worst student in the class, an embarrassing beginner in a field of red shirt freshmen, punished for the sin of wanting to learn something new.


I then took beginning piano because I’d never played, even though my mother had one in our home. All the other “beginning” students had also had pianos at home, but unlike me had played them for years. Again I was a drag on the proceedings, struggling to play scales as my fellow students swanned tunefully ahead.

Books can be equally humiliating to beginners. Popular titles like ‘The Internet for Dummies’ and ‘Juggling for the Complete Klutz’ make implicit acquiescence to an insult the price of learning.

We design elementary and secondary schools on the assumption that children are by definition beginners and should be treasured as such so that they revel in their education. Yet in adulthood, perhaps particularly in the Bay Area, expectations of being successful at everything become prevalent. Maybe that’s why my fellow students slummed in beginner courses instead of taking classes that would have challenged them to learn.

As a Stanford University professor, I can admit that I know nothing about many things without worrying that people will immediately view me as a fool. But many adults need some encouragement to acknowledge how much they have to learn. We need more spaces that help them unashamedly bask in the giddy delight of learning utterly new things.

With a Perspective, I’m Keith Humphreys.

Keith Humphreys is a Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford.