It’s hard to admit that I often dread the process of learning new things. I worry that I won’t get “it,” whatever the “it” is. This is why I quietly cringed recently when my son opened up a birthday gift from his brother, the board game Settlers of Catan. I knew he would eventually ask me to play. And I would have to learn the rules. Would I understand the game? Written instructions for most things tend to frighten me off. It mystifies me how IKEA ever took off. But my kids tackle those sorts of things with pleasure. I wish I had that confidence.
When I am stuck on something, or confused, the thinking feels painful in some metaphysical way, as if I am trapped and cannot find my way out. I struggle with the inevitable negative thoughts that rush forward — the ones that tell me I don’t measure up. This pattern prevents any productive thinking at all and casts a shadow on all future unlearned things. Maybe it started when I was in fourth grade and confused about Roman numerals. Or when I noticed that my engineering-geared brother was able to figure everything out very quickly. It was easier to just rely on him than trying myself, my sure-fire way to prevent failure.
Several years ago, I put together a blog. Visually, it was nothing special because I had some trouble learning how to design it and became impatient when it did not come easily. It was about the time that blogging was really taking off, and everyone acted like it was simple to set one up. But I was intimidated by the mass fervor of belief that it was so easy. And also by all the really well-designed websites and blogs I stumbled across. So I kept mine really simple and plain and pretended that it didn’t really matter.
But then it did start to matter about two years ago. That is when I tried to change things around while my blog site was live and got stuck. I realized, with a bit of horror, that things were suddenly in the wrong places. I imagined someone clicking the link right at that moment and seeing my ineptitude, my vulnerabilities exposed like the day that the tie from my long knit sweater got coiled up in my bicycle chain as I rode home from school. Fourth grade was a bad year. I sat on the sidewalk crying, my sweater covered in grease and stuck in the chain. My brother had to come rescue me and take apart my bike. After that I always wore pants when I rode and rolled them up. As for my blog, I never really recovered. I privately decided that redesigning it was beyond my capability and avoided trying again. Plus, my kids were getting so good at computer stuff that I decided if I wanted a new one I could just ask them.
In the meantime, I found Medium. It was a perfect solution to my blog problem because it was user friendly for non-techie types like me. I could upload my photos easily and just focus on my writing. I was relieved when my posts looked just like the other ones. Poor design did not leave me behind or make me stand out. I appreciated the equity that made me feel more comfortable. As I started to find my way around the site, I noticed that a big percentage of people had links on their profile to personal webpages and blogs. It roused up my little voice inside that reminded me that I did not have that. That I was relying solely on Medium with no back-up. I tried to ignore it, but it kept bothering me. That is why I decided that I would ask my kids to help me with a new blog. They are always looking for inexpensive ways to make me happy, and Christmas was coming. I had no doubt that they would help.
The short version here is that there was no redesigned blog under the Christmas tree. But even then I did not give up hope. I waited around for a few days expecting someone to say,
“Oh, hey mom, let’s work on your blog.”
But they didn’t. Which was strange because they are generally very helpful. They lift and carry. Take out the garbage. Do their own laundry. Make dinner.
Then the post on Medium from Ev Williams happened, the one where he said that the company was restructuring.
My heart sank a little. I realized that I had no idea what that technically meant for little bloggers like me. I realized that I needed to get going on my personal blog right that minute. And it was an emergency because the very techie son, the one who codes for fun was about to go back to college. And Medium, my new little haven was changing any minute.
I started with something very straightforward to get his attention. A necklace he had given me a few years ago had a tangle in it. It was too small for me to fix, but he is good with tiny things. I love this particular necklace; it is small, simple and light and has a nice little saying on it, “Live&Learn.” He brought it down to me soon after I gave it to him. It literally took him minutes of time. I am sure I had worked on it already for an hour. I was sitting at my computer, which I had secretly planned; it would be my chance to get him started on my blog. Looking back, I now notice the irony that I missed as he helped me with the tiny latch. I was busy planning my line of attack.
I made my best emotional appeal. The one that included notes of desperation and helplessness in my voice along with a hint of foreboding that a crisis was about to ensue. It is the voice that always, always works. It it is the voice I have practiced.
“Can you please help me with my blog?”
“But I don’t know what you want.”
I was ready. I replied with a rush of my ideas and reached to grab a pen to take notes. I breathed a sigh of relief when he actually sat down, a good sign. The next thing he said was even better:
“Hand me your computer.” Relief washed over me.
I gave it to him immediately and gratefully. And then, I moved off the chair, where he was just perched on the edge, so he could have more room. A surge of motherly generosity filled me, and I offered him all sorts of things to eat while he worked. He was already typing away.
But then he stopped, right as I got up to leave, halting me in my tracks. He handed me back the laptop.
“Here you go,” he said.
I looked on the screen. It was a tutorial.
A tutorial for me.
“I can’t do this,” I said.
To which he replied,
“You can do it just as well as me. I would have to watch the tutorial as well.” He went on to describe how learning code is different than figuring out someone else’s code. Or something like that.
“But it will be easier for you,” I argued.
“No it will not,” he shot back.
At which point I think I said,
“I just don’t believe it. Of course it will be easier for you!”
I was frustrated, struggling with the fact that I had someone-a resident expert- right next to me but not able to reap the benefits. He left me sitting there, un-rescued and went back upstairs.
I stared ahead at the arrow in front of me, my hand unconsciously fiddling with my necklace, suddenly recognizing that he had just called me out. He knew I was scared to try on my own. There was no other explanation for why he wouldn’t step in and help this time. I realized, with a sinking feeling, there was nothing I could do but go ahead and press ‘play.’ Otherwise, I would be a hypocrite wearing that necklace. Maybe that is why he had bought it. He had seen this day coming.
I had to play the tutorial three or four times until I was really able to digest the words. By the fifth time of watching the tutorial, a very tiny and good thing happened. I understood one little direction; it was a sliver of hope. I held on to it and kept going. And going. And going.
When things went wrong, I took a break. Gave my brain some time to marinate in the new words I was learning. When I came back, I searched for new tutorials.
I didn’t call him for help. I was too immersed and empowered by what I was learning. I realized that these tutorials are nothing to be afraid of. He knew that I wasn’t used to this. He knew I was just used to asking people around me. He knew I needed to change how I learned.
Two days later, I proudly showed him my new blog.
“Thank you,” I said.
“I knew you could do it,” he replied.
And, in that moment, I was grateful that he had forced me to face the thing that scared me. That he didn’t let me give up. That he opened up an opportunity that forced me to grow. I forgot how good it felt to succeed at learning something new. The little voice inside — the one that had been poking at my complacency — had finally quieted down.
Live and Learn.