Italy is teaching me to be a beginner

As I walked down the stone road, Via Camollia, pictured here, I was practicing what I was going to say when I arrived at Siena’s community pool for my first swim in Tuscany. I had it all worked out.

I purchased my entrance fee from a friendly woman at the pool door, then even negotiated the purchase of a pair of goggles. Then, she asked me if I wanted to pay 20 centimes extra for a doccia and ran her hands from her head to her waist, and I thought, shower! so I said, “Ci! Doccia. Grazie.” I thought I had passed with flying colors and then she asked me if I wanted a “phone.”

Uh oh. Do I want a phone? Hmmm. I asked her, in my beginning Italian, “do you want my phone number?” She shook her head no, so I blindly said “Ci. Phone. Grazie.” and she requested another 20 centimes. (About 25 cents.)

Italy is teaching me to be a beginner. I can’t just show up and deliver my pre-planned sentences. I need to improvise, guess, feel dumb, be OK with failing on a daily basis and proceed even when I don’t fully understand everything.

These are all the qualities I foster in myself as a coach and performer and in my clients. If we have it all figured out ahead of time, we’ll have nothing fresh to offer the audience. Our story will be told without us risking anything.

For example, when I coach, I look for the parts of the story that are confusing. I risk asking the dumb question, which often leads to not only clarity but an unraveling of some hidden, more nuanced aspects of the story. When I’m performing, even with a memorized script, I improvise all the time. I can’t just deliver what I planned ahead of time, like I wanted to do with the woman at the pool. I practice being with my audience from moment to moment, even when it makes me feel dumb or off-kilter.

An engaged audience will often challenge you. They will ask a question you don’t know the answer to. They won’t laugh where you thought they would but they will find the humor in another part of your story. They will put you off balance and sometimes you will have to proceed blindly, not knowing for sure how or where you will land.

So, I said “yes” to the woman at the pool, agreeing to something I didn’t understand, and trusting that I would figure it out when the time came. When I arrived at the locker room, I looked everywhere for clues, puzzled over the signs and then realized that “phone” was actually “phon” and it meant hair dryer. Because for my 20 centimes, I had 3 minutes use of a hair dryer, very much appreciated on this cold day in Siena.

What could you do that you’ve never done before to put you in that off-balance, tentative, awkward beginner’s place? It can be disconcerting to not feel “in control” but it can also bring freshness to your next presentation, even conversation. Let me know what you try and how it works for you. I’d love to hear.