Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Middles Are Always Muddy

In a technical training class that I co-led last week, the learners were becoming agitated.  For days they had been absorbing new, painfully complex information.  The course material was dense and daunting -- almost overwhelming. People were scared. They didn't think they were getting it.  I could look around the room and read their restless anxiety.  

So I confronted it.  

Asking for everyone's attention, I stood up, faced the group , and told them the following story.  It made a difference with them.  I hope it makes a difference with you, too.  

Middles Are Always Muddy

I want to quote to you one of my favorite mottoes. It is this:  'Middles are always muddy.'  In my experience, this is true whenever you're in the middle of learning a new skill.   It always seems about to fall apart terribly -- just before it all comes together beautifully.  

Picture yourself on a hike.  You come to a wide stream that you need to cross.  It seems doable enough.  You start to wade in, and at first it's not too bad.  Then you start to hit the deeper water, where the current swirls around your legs. Your feet sink into the muck, and clouds of stirred-up murkiness spread out around you.  You're almost losing your balance now.  You really think you can't go much further.  You feel sure you will capsize.  But even as you think that, a funny thing happens.  You start to realize that it's getting shallower. The muddiest part is behind you now, and you can see your feet sloshing forward again.  Before you know it, you're standing on the far bank.  You made it.

In the same way, anything worth learning or achieving is going to have a middle stage of confusion and discouragement.  When that happens, take heart.  You're just at the muddy part.  You know you're supposed to be making progress, but you feel as though the pattern of it all is slipping away.  

The very fact that you feel panicky and worried at this point is a testimony to your intelligence.  You fret that you're not where you need to be.  Of course you're not there yet. Of course you have a ways to go.  Your awareness of that fact, and your discontent with your present state of confusion, are catalysts that help you persevere.  

In the middle of fording a stream, you wouldn't stop in the deepest part, turn around, and slog back the way you came, would you? After all, you've invested a lot of effort up to this point.  It's just as far to go back to where you started, and you would wind up wasting all the wading you've already done.  

Neither would you throw off your backpack, and collapse, despondent, in the deepest mud, refusing to move onward. Why not?  Because then you know you would be in over your head. 

Instead, you dig in, and press on.  Maybe you find a stick to help you keep your balance, or a rock to rest on and catch your breath, or a friend who can throw you a rope.  Or maybe you just keep feeling your way, little by little, stepping more slowly than you'd like, but making progress all the same.  

That's exactly how you get through the middle of daunting subject matter.  You don't give up.  You keep finding your way. Your human brain is a fantastic learning tool.  It's far, far better than any man-made computer. It's an expert mapper and an intuitive problem-solver. Right in the middle of the muddy confusion, it's already hard at work: making subtle connections, working out solutions, charting your way to success.  Trust your brain to help you maneuver through the muddy middle and navigate to solid ground.   

Middles are always muddy. 

Think of the many streams you have already crossed that were muddy in the middle.   

This is just one more.


  1. Hello Beth...from Isobel (megentaisobel) ,
    I can totally relate to middlles are always muddy. I have recently jointed a Toastmasters Club where in addition to presenting speeches, every member is expected to speak for 2 minutes in a Table topics session. The Table topics are usually random and most often a different subject for each member. After 5 months of meetings, I'm still having difficulty organizing my thoughts (especially if the table topic is on a subject I know nothing about) and speaking for 2 minutes off the cuff. Although I feel that I embarrass myself at times I don't want to quit. Your blogs have been very helpful and inspirational ...Beth you are an amazing writer.

  2. Thanks, Isobel, I just now found this comment as I was perusing my back posts. Toastmasters is a great organization and a fine way to challenge your information-organizing skills. I hope you continue to overcome your "middles" and contribute your voice to the world.