The Discomfort and the Freedom of Not Knowing

The hot Sonoma sun beat down on our shiny black trailer, our sunhats, and our neatly placed two-by-fours.  Those 2X4s had not come easy.  2X4s (as I learned only recently) are used to make studs, which are like the bones of the house.  The first part of framing the walls is cutting the 2X4s to the right size and nailing them together.  We’d spent most of the previous day working with the building plans to accommodate our salvaged windows and our trailer, which seemed to be slightly narrower than the one in the plans.  I can’t imagine how it took us so long to adjust the plans for that first wall, but I’ll just say I haven’t seen so many fractions since the third grade, and there are many hidden dimensions, overlaps, and extra spaces that need to be accounted for.

Nicola, our architect friend, stopped by to say hi.  I asked him about one of our assumptions–that our trailer was two inches narrower than the trailer in the plans.

“No….” he said, “The wall extends for an inch beyond the trailer on both sides.”  And he went on to show us how the wall in the plans was designed to be wider than the trailer.

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful and resilient and ready to start all over again.  When Nicola left we set the 2X4s aside and took a long lunch break. We barely spoke except to say, “disheartened… demoralized… disappointed.”

Joseph muttered, “Of course, I should have known.”

I sat with my complete unknowing, wondering, “What makes me think I can do this thing that professionals do?”

It is so uncomfortable to know so little, to work so hard to try to understand and then to fail and have nothing to show for all that work.  It’s hard enough in general to not fall victim to imposter syndrome (when people, especially women, underestimate their own expertise), and now I’ve taken on a project where I really don’t know anything.  I don’t even know what some of these tools are called!  The challenge is to withstand the uncomfortable feeling of incompetence.  There are lots of things I am good at, and wouldn’t be more comfortable to just do those?

Seth Godin says, “Learn something new for no apparent reason,” as part of his artist’s path.  As we get older we are less and less comfortable with starting at the beginning. We feel we are too old to be true beginners.  We feel silly.  Like when you are learning a language and meet young native-speaking children,

“That four-year-old speaks better Spanish than I do!  With a perfect accent!”  In fact, she speaks better Spanish than I ever will.

The challenge is to immerse myself completely in this learning, even not seeing how it connects to what I’ll do once this project is over.  I need to learn as much as I can so I can do this project right now, whether or not I ever do it again.  This can be frustrating and demoralizing… but maybe it can also be a kind of freedom, a kind of bemused awe at the myriad things I’m not an expert in, but can now appreciate the depth of skill of someone who is.

It’s even a bit of a relief to know nothing.  I am just a person who never learned to build and is now, for some reason, trying to do so, stumbling along putting together a durable, square, impermeable house.  If I mess it up it doesn’t say anything about my value as a person.  My ego has nowhere to stand.  Occasionally she gets a bit of a toehold,

“Aha, I’m actually not bad at measuring and cutting 2X4s on the chop saw.”  But then they don’t fit!  What happened?

All this humility is uncomfortable, exhausting, and… good practice.   After our lunch break we started again–back to modifying the plans, measuring, cutting.  We finished our first framed wall the following afternoon.  We can do it, but slowly, slowly.

When you’ve started something as an adult and a true beginner, how was that for you?  Did you enjoy the freedom to fail?  Or were you frustrated by not being able to do what others did so easily?  Or some combination?

2X4s, properly measured, cut, and arranged, at last


8 thoughts on “The Discomfort and the Freedom of Not Knowing

  1. “It is so uncomfortable to know so little, to work so hard to try to understand and then to fail and have nothing to show for all that work.” Yes your post rings a mighty bell…it is harder as I get older to learn something new, and your outer work is a metaphor for my inner work. It’s so hard to let go of judgments; to step off that cliff.The ego indeed has nowhere to stand. I’m told the mind needs to be trained to find comfort in letting go. Very hard work.

  2. I just finished reading your post. I am watching you build your home and I am impressed with your courage and determination. This is my next goal in life. To have my own tiny home. I have learned everything I know in life the same way you are building your home. That includes raising my three children, building my first and only home, making jewelry, learning photography etc. The first step is the desire and then the perseverance. You have what it takes and more. I haven’t decided if I was going to build from the trailer or hire someone to do all the framing, roof and windows. I had my other house built that way then I did all the finish work. Age? Well I’m almost 56 and I still plan on building one of these homes one way or another!! I can’t wait to see your next step 🙂

  3. You two are beautiful beginners! Cheers to pushing boundaries ever outward as we grow and learn and make mistakes!

    My husband and I lived in a tiny house on wheels (we didn’t build it ourselves) as nomads for almost 3 years after leaving our NYC life and jobs and selling almost all our stuff (both incredibly terrifying and freeing as we pushed ourselves outward and then at times let fear suck us back)! A beautiful part of our lives and now we are figuring out the next way to push ourselves outward . . . maybe a tiny house and new work lives doing something together in a field we know very little about . . .

    So as I read your post this morning I felt a deep knowing inside like you were talking to me.
    Thank you! Thank you for the injection of inspiration and openness about your own uncomfortable feelings as you push your boundaries outward. Thank you for reminding me to learn and do new things just for the sake of doing them without knowing how they will fit into our future, I really needed that today!

    Mistakes are windows if we remember to look through.

    See you down the road . . .

    1. Hi Stacy,
      Thanks so much for being in touch and for your encouragement! It is great to hear about other couples who are also trying to build a life together that… makes sense, that prioritizes what’s truly important. And it’s really encouraging to hear that sharing my uncomfortable feelings was useful to you. I’m still sorting out what I write about here and it felt a little edgy to share something that’s somewhat not positive.

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