An expert’s guide to being a beginner


March 22, 2014
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Stuck moment: Starting over really sucks sometimes. I was a total pro, with respect and a corner office. Now I have to work my way up again with people who are half my age! How do I get my confidence back?

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Maria Nunes worked more than 20 years in the business and consulting world, rising to the top ranks of a well-reputed strategy firm. As a managing principal, she held authority and seniority. She was comfortable and knowledgeable. But in her heart, her true passion was for education.

“As time goes on, you look at what you have to lose and the stakes get higher,” she says. “Working with people who were very passionate about what they did gave me the courage to ask myself what I really wanted.”

One very deep breath later, she left consulting to start over again in education. She’s currently “paying her dues” as a masters student in education and fourth-grade assistant teacher.

Among other things, this meant letting go of the prestige and authority that came with running an office and hobnobbing with captains of industry. And that led to some prickly transitions at times.

The key to not letting it get the better of you, says Maria, is a small but mighty shift in perspective: “You have to give yourself permission to begin again.” Here’s how she did it.

Swallow your pride
Maria’s first interview for an assistant teaching position was an adventure in humility.

“You have to demonstrate a lesson. I didn’t know that,” she says. The teacher introduced her to a classroom full of second graders — plus the five adults who would be assessing her — and said, “Ms Nunes is going to give you a lesson.

“I had one of those moments when you wish the earth would swallow you up,” Maria says. “And I had to stop and admit that I didn’t have anything prepared. It really drove home to me that I was starting fresh.”

Rather than run out with her tail between her legs, Maria asked to read a story to the students in place of a prepared lesson.

“They were surprised that I was going to wing it,” she says. “They said, ‘Do you have a book?’ and I didn’t even have a book.” Eventually, one was found and Maria completed the interview.

Her unexpected lesson that day continues to guide her. “I have to remind myself each morning to be modest. And that I’m here because I chose to do this. You can’t have it both ways.”

Don’t think you have all the answers
Maria currently teaches math three days a week under the advisement of a more experienced teacher. “My first adjustment was letting go of my presumptions,” she says. “I bring 20+ years of work experience — and I’m working for people much younger, who have a lot less total experience than I do.”

Being evaluated by teachers who were her seniors career-wise but juniors life-wise was especially jarring. Her first feedback session brought up complicated feelings, and she had to stop herself from getting defensive in the face of criticism.

“You have the one voice that says, What do you mean? The other voice reminds you, I’m learning,” she says. “You don’t want to close yourself off and just apply what you’ve done before in your new setting,” Maria says. “Because you miss the opportunity to see what’s different in your new environment.”

This is what’s called the beginner’s mind, when we put aside what’s known so we can truly learn what’s new. (For tips on how to practice this, see “A strategy to really, truly reach your goal.”) For Maria, it helped to remember that the only person she needs to prove anything to is herself. “Once I did that, I allowed myself the freedom to discover, take risks, make mistakes. That’s how you learn.”

But don’t short-change your life experience, either
At the same time, when you switch from expert to beginner, don’t forget that you already have what Maria calls “an accelerated development.”

“You never really start at zero,” she says. “You bring a lot of what you already know with you. When you think about beginning, you sometimes think back to your first career, and what that was like — but you’re not the same person. You have all the strengths and life experience you earned from your previous career. As I relax and open my mind, there are more and more things that I can tap into that I’ve done before. You repurpose in certain ways.”

For example — that interview she thought she flubbed? She got the job. Her ability to come up with a plan B at a moment’s notice was a skill she’d brought with her.

“They were impressed that I went for it. That I didn’t panic under pressure,” she says. “Because things don’t always go according to plan.”

Keep your motivation front and center
It’s essential to remember what’s really under the surface of a starting-over change.  “If it’s what you want to be doing, that will carry you through,” Maria says. “You’ll have a reserve to draw from to help you grow.”

She also found that her sense of purpose serves as an important buffer against lost status or pride. It also acts as a tuning fork for her ambitions — which is getting kids to love math.

“When people say that they’re not good at math, it kills my soul,” she says. “So I made it my personal crusade to help people see math differently. It’s such an important skill in today’s world.”

“And it’s been freeing to follow a dream, to rewind and start a career over again. You can feel yourself growing and developing. I feel alive again.”

PRINTABLE TIP CARD: Maria Nunes on how to start a new career with an open mind

Next week: How to handle confrontation with confidence + printable practice sheet
Last week: Office politics for people who hate politics

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