Have you ever heard of beginner’s luck? When I was eight years old, my mom bowled for the first time and got a strike. She called it “beginner’s luck,” and since then, I’ve wondered if there’s any reality behind the phrase.

What makes beginners lucky? Overall, I accept the null hypothesis: beginners are no more lucky than anybody else. People’s perceptions, not luck, give rise to the phrase. No one remembers unlucky beginners. When a beginner is lucky, people remember it. Or perhaps “beginner’s luck” is a phrase popularized by people who want to encourage other people to try something new. In any event, I generally don’t believe beginners are any luckier than anybody else. The few times they do achieve some success are inflated.

With the discussion of what I consider as “actual luck” out of the way, I put forth the notion that that having a beginner’s mindset can and does lead to success.

A beginner…

  • has no expectations
  • is relaxed.
  • is not concerned about the outcome
  • is learning as s/he goes
  • is not afraid of failure
  • is adaptive
  • has little emotional investment in the activity
  • doesn’t care what other people think
  • has an identity separate from the activity
  • has no reason to be nervous
  • finds humor in his or her mistakes
  • moves on instinct
  • perceives and reacts to new information, defensively

An expert, on the other hand…

  • expects to perform as well, if not better, than his or her previous best outcome
  • is rigid
  • is highly concerned about the outcome
  • has already learned everything, so doesn’t try to learn as s/he goes
  • is afraid of failure
  • is static
  • has a great amount of emotional investment in the activity
  • care what other people think, even if those people are not people s/he physically talks to on a regular basis
  • has his/her identity tied into the activity
  • has every reason to be nervous
  • does not find humor in his or her mistakes
  • moves on skill
  • anticipates and attacks new information, offensively

If you’re an expert, and you’re aware of the psychological issues being an expert can create, you’ll know how to counteract them. Although in life, “the more you know, the more you don’t know” applies to a lot of situations, it doesn’t apply to studying for standardized tests, any of which are finite in scope. Whether you’re studying for the GRE, SAT, or another test, the more you know, the more you know.

How can you cultivate a beginner’s mindset when you’ve already become an expert? (By the way, if you’ve heard of “growth mindset,” you’ll recognize that what I’ve described as a beginner’s mindset is just about a one-to-one map on that concept.)

When doing something physical, like a sport, switching to your non-dominant hand is a great way to experience being a beginner again. (If you’re already ambidextrous, try switching to your feet, you smart aleck.) In test prep, though, bubbling (or clicking) with your non-dominant hand isn’t going to do the trick.

Few students get through the mountains of material available to them before they take a test. Those that do face the “expert” problem. They’ve seen it all before, and they know the test so well they try to game it. They over-anticipate. They go into the test on offense. They do not have the beginner’s mindset.

If you’re one of those students, the solution is not to give up entirely. I’ve worked with students who have exhausted materials for exams, been frustrated with plateaued scores, and have begun to resent learning. The solution for each student is different, and if you’re not sure where to go next, working with a tutor is a great next step. Don’t give up just yet!

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