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Why you should try something you don’t know how to do (yet)

When was the last time you voluntarily tried to do something that you didn’t know how to do? It’s been said that necessity is the mother of invention. But why do we always wait until it is necessary?

Anyone?... You! You in the back. What’s that?.... That’s right!

Doing something we don’t know how to do is uncomfortable, and we have been trained to avoid discomfort. Ergo we wait to try things we don’t know how to do until we are forced into it.

Think back to the last time you were in that predicament. You are backed into the proverbial corner, and you need to figure out how to do something that is entirely foreign to you. Your mind is racing. Your heart is pounding. You're sweating and your hands are shaky. You are saying to yourself, “I don’t know how to do this! I don’t know how to do this!”

Doesn’t exactly sound like set up for success.

I’m sure there are psychologists out there that can explain how this is all part of our fight or flight response and that in those moments we are wired to hyper focus and overcome adversity. Sure. Sure. But still. Even if we succeed... what does it cost us?

Wouldn’t it be easier to learn and grow with a clear head and our critical thinking skills at our disposal? Wouldn’t it be nice to build up the resiliency it takes to cope and thrive in moments when we are tossed an unknown task and a ticking clock?

As adults, most of us shy away from news challenges unless a crisis forces us to learn. I encourage you to lean into new and unexplored territories. The more you get comfortable with taking on new problems and tasks, the better prepared you are for the ones you didn’t sign up for. But first, here are a few things to think about.

Accept that you are going to be bad at it.

Before you even begin, give yourself permission to mess up and not succeed. Embrace the fact that that you are going to suck at it. This might sound discouraging, but for many people it’s the reason they get stuck at the starting line.

Public speaking is a skill that comes up for people when they think about what they wish they were better at. When I talk to people about it, many of them want to learn, but they don’t want to go through the pain and discomfort of messing up or not getting it “right.” If you can release the expectation that you are doing to be perfect on your first try, you welcome the opportunity to grow and learn.

I’m an experienced public speaker now, and I have no problem getting up in front of a crowd of people. But it was rough going when I first started. In my first three Toastmaster speeches, I got through my opening sentence and immediately forgot everything I planned to say next. I got over that hurdle, but still found my jokes falling flat and my message not connecting with audience. Most embarrassingly, there were times I didn’t properly prepare (something I’m still not great at.)

All the experience I have started with my willingness to stumble along the way.

Get clear on why it’s important that you learn this new thing.

Understanding why a certain challenge is important for you to tackle will create more motivation to keep going even when you are contemplating giving up. Make a list of all the ways your life will be better when you have developed this new skill or talent. Double check that your motivations are value-based rather than fear-based.

Last year, I started taking violin lessons again. I don’t always make the time to practice, and there is a lot of self-talk involved. The amount of practicing I do is usually related to how value-based my self-talk is. Here are some examples of both.

  • I paid a fortune to get my violin fixed. If I don’t play it often enough, it will fall into disrepair, and it will all be for nothing! (fear-based)

  • My boyfriend’s mom played the violin, and I when I play, it reminds him of her. (value-based)

  • If I don’t put in the time now, I’m going to suck when I play at my friend’s birthday party. (fear-based)

  • When I play regularly, I can feel myself improving and becoming more confident. (value-based)

Fear-based reasons are like an aggressive sports coach yelling at you to try harder and do better. They might get you to take some action in the short-run, but fear-based thinking can end in paralysis. Value-based reasons are like a cheering squad shouting encouraging messages from the finish line where they are waiting for you with open arms.

Seek the kind of feedback that will help you.

We can all benefit from constructive criticism when we are growing, but the wrong feedback from the wrong person at the wrong time can inhibit rather than support our learning process. Be mindful of who you ask for help and what kind of feedback you want. In the book Thanks for the Feedback, authors Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen explain how people can seek out different types of feedback based on what they need.

When you are just starting out, you might just need someone to acknowledge that you are working hard and doing your best. If you are stuck, you probably want someone with more experience to tell you what to do and how to do it. Other times, you might be working toward a specific qualification or level of achievement, in which case, you need an objective evaluation of how you measure up. Getting the right feedback at the right moment will propel you forward.

Though I’m familiar with all this information, I still don’t get it right. Last December, my boyfriend decided to take up baking. For his first recipe, he chose a no-bake eggnog cheesecake. It was a bit ambitious, and he spent all day working on it. He made several trips to the grocery store. He couldn’t find any gelatin (a crucial ingredient), so he tried to improvise. When all was said and done, it didn’t come out the way he thought it would. It tasted great, but without the gelatin, it was soupy and wouldn’t set.

The feedback he needed in that moment was a pat on the back for trying and recognition that he tried as hard as he could. Not seeing that, I suggested next time he try something simple like a boxed cake mix. (I know! I feel like an idiot as I’m typing this.)

Understandably, he was hurt that instead of being encouraging and supportive of his first attempt, I was already criticizing him and telling him how he could do better.

Something you can do for yourself is to be proactive and be specific about what feedback you need based on where you are in the learning process.

Just take the first step. ANY first step.

Martin Luther King famously said, “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” Trying something you don’t know how to do always takes some faith. Faith in yourself and faith in the process. Give yourself the gift of taking just one small action.

I’m currently producing a podcast for the library, and it’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve listened to thousands of podcasts, but I’ve never made one. I spent a couple weeks feeling completely overwhelmed. I finally reminded myself of a few things that I mentioned above:

  • It’s my first podcast, so it doesn’t have to be perfect.

  • It’s something I have ALWAYS wanted to do.

  • I have plenty of people to cheer me on and give me technical help and feedback.

  • If I just start with something small, the rest of the steps will fall into place.

Slowness creates gratitude and appreciation for the work.

There are some tasks or activities for which you will have a natural ability. It won’t take very much effort at all to master it. Then there will be other achievements that take patience, dedication and a lot of time before you see the fruits of your labor.

Thirteen years ago, I started riding horses as a hobby. The first time I tried to go riding on my own, it took me an hour to tack up the horse and when I finally got on him, I couldn’t get him to leave the driveway. He just stood in place until I gave up and brought him back into the barn. He knew, just as well as I did, that I didn’t know what I was doing.

But year after year and fall after fall, I got more comfortable with the horses. I built up stronger leg muscles and better understood how to use them to communicate with the horses. I grew more confident by riding with others and helping them to be more comfortable. When I look at where I started as a rider and where I am now, I feel proud of myself for sticking with it and all the steps (and missteps) it took to get here.


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