Stick to What You Know, Right?

tower, daniel baylis, france, essay

When it comes to the exterior restoration of a building, the art of “pointing” a wall involves replacing the mortar in between stones. Due to forces of nature, such as wind and rain, old mortar slowly erodes, and proactive property owners are quick to ensure mortar does not erode too severely. For the work to occur, there are secondary tasks to address, such as crushing stone into sand for the mortar and constructing scaffolding. In general, tasks such as these are an unglamorous blend of banging rocks and getting covered in mortar goop. This is how I spent much of my week: the restoration of a 13th century cistercian monk’s tower.

As I was working with a crew of motley volunteers, I had many thoughts running through my head. Some of them ran so incredibly fast that they were lost forever. This is fairly typical.  But other thoughts were sticky and fat and slow and half-baked, and these contemplations left introspective residue that continues to provide fodder for internal dissertation. I’ve come to certain inevitable truths about myself, and one is about talent.

It turns out that I’m really not good at some things.

Shocking, I know. 

For instance, I’m actually quite dreadful at this type of renovation-based work.  I lack concrete experience (pun intended), but there is also is something to be said about my personal disposition and how I’m wonderfully wired with certain talents and completely wireless — so to speak — at other tasks. Like fixing shit.

I feel a nugget of jealousy towards those handy individuals who know how to repair stuff, who have the patience for renovation and large-scale restoration projects. These folks are making the world beautiful, as well as maintaining architectural gems that provide critical historical information about the people we once were. It’s important work. But I just don’t swing that way.

My lack of skills in some domains thankfully does not affect my overall self-worth. I’m good at some things.  I can write a killer tweet. I make a damn delicious black bean chili. I have the ability to effortlessly entertain a classroom of undisciplined Peruvian children during an English lesson. Perhaps most importantly of all, I am really good at sleeping.

Sometimes I wonder why I bother trying the stuff that doesn’t come naturally to me. Is it really worth it? Instead of trying to become something I’m not, shouldn’t I simply invest my energy in the things that I’m good at? Wouldn’t it be most beneficial to the world if I stuck to what I knew best? Perhaps it would be advantageous to our collective society if we all stopped wasting our time on self-indulgent skill-building activities that don’t amount to anything.

If this is the case, then you ought to quit that Italian course now because chances are you won’t ever be able to speak in the capacity that you want to speak. Throw in the towel on those cello classes. Flush your romantic dreams of building your own house down the toilet. Let the superfluous dreams die. Stick to what you know, right?

Or should we?

It’s a conundrum worth exploring because it has the potential to change our lives. I haven’t fully formulated my positioning, but I think that, just maybe, there is a value making time for things that don’t come naturally. I’m no cranium expert, but I’ll bet that when we are challenging ourselves to try a new skill, even if we don’t become a master, our brains are encouraged to be less stuck in their ways. And attempts at other endeavours might even make us better at our strongest skills, simply because we’ll have more reference points.

So I’m going to keep pretending I’m a construction worker — and not only for the superficial reasons of tool belts and great tans — but because it’s probably good for my brain to do something that requires a new way of thinking. And you should sign up for the pottery classes, and even if your creations look like deformed masses of donkey dung, rest assured that it doesn’t matter. Because the important part is that you’re trying — and ultimately you become a better version of you. 


(This article was first published in 2011.

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