On Being a Beginner

I recall overhearing two fellow bread bakers at a church gathering: “Did you do bulk fermentation?” “Was your stretch and fold in the bowl, or on a board?”

The technical terms they were throwing around so casually made me feel small. Not that I was even part of the conversation. I was merely passing by and overheard it, but as someone who considered myself a “bread baker” (even if a beginning, amateur one), this conversation seemed to place a sign on my forehead that read, “I’m a novice; what do I know?”

Inside, that is exactly how I felt. At that point, I had only done a stretch and fold on a board, according to instructions in a book I owned. I didn’t know what it would look like⁠—or even why⁠—one would do this in a bowl instead. What determined the differences? How would I ever know? It’s as if I had caught a glimpse of some “secret knowledge” that only real bread bakers had⁠—and I feared I would never attain it.

Fast forward a couple of years, and I regularly use a stretch and fold method that leaves my dough in the bowl. I wet my hand before each “turn” (as we call one round of stretching and folding the dough) in order to release the dough from the sides of the bowl and keep it from sticking to my hand. This is something I’ve learned from experience, from reading books, even from watching online videos. While I can still feel like a beginner at times, I am certainly more experienced than I once was.

In order to get to where I am today, I had to be willing to press on. It’s all too easy for us, when we feel small, insignificant, even “stupid,” to feel like giving up on something. When we encounter those who know so much more and are further along on their journeys, we may ask ourselves, “Why even try?”

It’s important to remember that we’re all beginners at one point or another. The two guys I overheard tossing around bread terminology had days when they probably felt the exact same way I had felt in that moment of overhearing their conversation. And as someone who has passed through⁠ the initial stages of learning to bake bread, I have to be aware that there are many around me that would consider themselves beginners in this area, and perhaps even more who have not even begun the journey.

I don’t want to discourage new voyagers, nor those who have yet to set sail. I hope to encourage and inspire.

I’m not meaning to say that these bread bakers I overheard meant any harm by their interchange about “bulk fermentation” and methods of stretch-and-folds. They were joyfully interacting about something they both enjoyed to do. I don’t consider them to have been at fault in any way. Thus, it’s not our job to walk on eggshells, testing and carefully couching every word we utter so as to avoid any kind of potential insensitivity our words might cause. We are incapable of knowing how our words will affect others at all times. But there are a few things we can keep in mind:

As beginners, we must be quick to call out truth as truth, and lies as lies. If you, like me, overhear an innocent conversation about a shared topic of interest between others, and you feel hurt because you’re not as experienced or informed, don’t take it personally! I recognize it can feel like you’re totally exposed as a novice, but if no one is actually pointing a finger at you or saying demeaning words toward you, you’re not actually on display for all to “look down upon” (and if that would really happen, I think you need to find some new friends). These feelings of insecurity that arise within us are natural. Let them be a spur to motivate you to continue to learn⁠—not necessarily so that you can feel “more secure” or prideful about your knowledge, but so that you can dive deeper into something that you’ve admitted to yourself you care enough about to pursue.

As those who have passed the point of being a beginner in some area, let us not flaunt our experience. Remember what it was like for you to be a beginner. Who inspired you during those early days? What (positive things) encouraged you to keep going? Don’t be “that guy.” (You know what I mean.) The one who throws out obscure or esoteric terms to “prove” how much he knows. Be humble. Be kind. Seek to come alongside those who are learning, and be a companion to help teach them, as you have also been taught.

So. Are you feeling like a beginner today? Chances are, you feel this way in at least one aspect of your life. If this is you, take heart. Press on. Know that these early stages are necessary⁠—all who have gone before you have passed through them, and they are nothing to be ashamed of. Rather, embrace them. Enjoy the journey of learning, experimenting, trying, even of failing at times. Get back up, dust yourself off, and try again. Give yourself lovingly to the process and delight in the joys of discovery.

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