Learning by Experience

Learning By ExperienceWhen do you know you’ve crossed the line from not knowing to knowing? How do you know when you can do something? I’m not talking about being an expert necessarily, but being competent and capable. These sorts of ideas have been on my mind in my new job as I find myself grasping for reassurance that I know what I’m doing. I’ve found that the more I try things, even when I’m not quite sure how to do them, the faster I learn them. This is scary, because trying things when you’re not confident about how to do them means you might fail.

I find it comforting to collect stories of other people who have tried something new and eventually succeeded. In Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter, her memoir about transitioning careers from journalism to carpentry, Nina MacLaughlin writes:

You could read books and books on how to build a wall or tile a floor, hear someone speak for hours on the best ways to make a bureau or bookcase. They could use all the right words, weave the tightest net, but until you grip the hammer in your palm, until you feel two pieces of wood pressed flush against each other before they are fastened, until you stand back from what you’ve made and then walk up to it and kick it or place something on it, you will not know how it’s done. All the language in the world won’t make a bookshelf exist. It takes watching, and doing, and screwing it up, and doing it again and again until it is done.

I didn’t expect my own work experience to resonate so much with that of a carpenter, but there you go. Whether you’re making bookshelves or business plans, at some point you have to put your creation out into the world and see if it works. And if it doesn’t, you learn what you can from the failure and try again. At some point in the process, you become proficient at your work.

It’s scary not to feel that mastery when you’re used to being good at what you do. I keep trying to remind myself that uncertainty is a sign of growth. I’m learning! And one day, I’ll be able to kick the tires on my work and be satisfied that it’s sturdy and good.