Do It First, Learn How Second

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Image courtesy of Unsplash.
While I don't recommend the title as general advice, it does hold a grain of truth, coming as it does from a participant in an "Act as If" exercise described in Barbara Sher's I Could Do Anything if I Only Knew What It Was. (I've heard similar things called "Fake It 'Til You Make It," but I prefer Sher's name for it because it correctly calls attention to the fact that this is an exercise in self-actualization, rather than self-deception.) The grain of truth comes not just from the author's observation that such exercises build confidence, but also from something she mentions in passing. At one point, she asks, "How did they learn so fast?"

Any new skill has to be learned, and, while it is good to attempt to learn from others when acquiring the skill, the limitations of the human mind will likely prevent full recall of everything in the first few attempts for all but the simplest things. Action helps automatize what one knows, reveal strengths and weaknesses, and help one learn areas to work on -- as a small thing to improve upon rather than just one more item in an unfamiliar and easily-forgotten laundry list.

A late winter storm gave me a good example of that last point earlier this year. I have some experience dealing with winter, but suburbia has thrown a few curves at me. Last year, our long driveway and three feet of snow taught me, among other things, to park the cars closer to the end of the driveway in order to minimize the amount of snow clearance I need to do before we can leave the house.

This year, I was ready, or so I thought. Arriving home with the kids the night before a lesser storm, I parked the car halfway down the driveway, leaving enough room for Mrs. Van Horn to pull in behind me. The next day, we'd gotten about half the amount of snow we were told to expect, enough to close school, but not enough, I thought, to keep my wife from driving in to work if she wanted or needed to.


The day before, as I drove in, I noticed that other cars in the neighborhood were parked backwards (i.e., pointing out) in their driveways. I wrote it off as a local peculiarity since people seem to love parking backwards around here. I almost always see people doing this in parking lots -- often while I wait for them to back in and out of the spot they could have just pulled into.

The next day, my wife got stuck at the end of the driveway trying to drive to work. I had to get her car out of the street and back into the driveway, which I did without much trouble, but it caused me to learn two new things: (1) everyone had parked funny for a reason, namely to avoid losing momentum when leaving the driveway; and (2) I should have had my car, which is all-wheel drive, closer to the street, rather than hers. We ended up stuck for the day it took for the snow plow to arrive, and perhaps we might have been stuck anyway, but it was nice to get another "rookie mistake" (as someone joked to me about where I parked the cars last year) out of the way. And I won't have trouble remembering this, although it went into my pre-snow checklist, anyway.

Along with the above quote, this experience is something I plan to recall the next time I am confronted with learning a new skill that might seem daunting. Nobody learns everything at once, even relatively simple things (in the sense that there is lots one can do ahead of time) like preparing for a winter storm.

-- CAV

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