I came across this short blog post by Seth Godin the other day and it struck a chord with me. Recently I’ve been helping a friend with some home remodeling/improvement projects, along with some handyman work (disclosure: he’s a bona-fide handyman – I’m definitely not). This has been a really interesting process and I’ve been having a great time. For sure, it’s hard work and I’m not exactly used to doing physical labor day in and day out so that’s been a bit of a challenge. (Along with the fact that my friend is some kind of super-human who doesn’t stop working for lunch, let alone the first breakfast, second breakfast, and snack breaks I’ve grown accustomed to. But, I digress…)
Anyway, I’m learning a lot about basic home improvement as well as various tools and their usage, the fickleness of home owners, the home repair industry, garage organization techniques, and plain old human nature. What’s surprised me the most, though, is how mentally frustrating the whole thing has been. You see, my friend has been doing this type of work in one form or another for most of his life and he’s very proficient in almost every aspect of home improvement, whether it’s electrical, plumbing, flooring, painting, drywalling, general woodworking, etc. I spent a lot of time helping my dad with these same types of tasks when I was younger, but I just don’t have the confidence nor the competence to embark on such projects without some serious oversight/guidance. In other words, I’m not a complete noob, but generally speaking, I’m not that handy.
So my friend, bless his heart, will patiently show me how to do something, answer any questions I have, and then leave me to it. It looks easy when he does it but as soon as he’s gone, I’m all thumbs. Frequently I’ll mess something up and will sheepishly need to go back and ask for clarification on, say, a sawing technique. Or how to wire an outlet. Or apply calk without getting it all over the wall. And this happens pretty much all day, every day.
No matter how interesting or fun it is, it’s almost impossible not to get a bit down on yourself when you’re sucking ass so much. But thankfully after I’m done helping my friend I get a chance to clear my head and ride my bike home where, if I have the energy, I’ll practice guitar. Which, coincidentally, I totally suck at and is frustrating as hell. So I throw the guitar down and head out on my mountain bike, which, you guessed it, I suck at. But what about swimming Masters? I’ve been doing that for a long time, but am still stuck at the slow end of the pool. Learning a new programming language? I struggle constantly with that, too. Etc., etc., etc.
Back to what Seth Godin says in that blog post: “If you care enough to make a difference, if you care enough to get better – you should care enough to experience incompetence again.” So this isn’t a pity party about how much I’m currently sucking at life. It’s more of a reminder to myself when I’m having a hard time staying positive that in order to keep getting better I need to keep putting myself in uncomfortable situations, usually a lot of them. To Seth Godin’s point, this gets harder and harder as one gets older, especially after you’ve become accustomed to having a certain level of expertise, like a day job you’ve done for a long time and are pretty good at.
When I was planning things out a few years ago, one of the goals I had for “early retirement” was to have the freedom and time to keep learning new things so I could become a better human being. That’s nice on paper, but in reality it translates into feeling incompetent pretty regularly. But, that’s the way it works. Learning new things is hard and, at times, uncomfortable. But, again, that’s kind of the point. Working hard at something and being uncomfortable are the exact things that make you a better person and, ultimately, make your life more interesting and enjoyable. So remember that. (And don’t take yourself too seriously.)