Over the weekend, I tried my hand at carpentry and attempted to make a table that would hold all my music gear. Hours of cursing later, I found myself stuck in the "I suck at this" loop of learning, and it codified a really common problem when practising a new skill: the breaking point where you want to walk away forever. Using my failure as an example, let's walk through some of the common roadblocks when developing a new skill and what you can do to push through those problems.
Title image remixed from Dudarev Mikhail (Shutterstock).
The easiest piece of advice is to stay positive and push through until you're done, but when you're stuck in that moment when a project makes no sense to you, that advice doesn't do you a lot of good. Instead, I took a more procedural approach to get over the "I suck" hump so I wouldn't abandon the project for good.
Try Another Expert Source Or Manual
About an hour into my project, I realised the guides I found online weren't cutting it for me. It wasn't that they were bad, but they were too complicated and emphasised aesthetics over simplicity. This was causing me to get caught up in details that didn't matter because the table I was trying to build was going to reside quietly in the garage away from everyone — it didn't matter what it looked like.
Depending on the type of project you're stuck on, your problem might be fixable by finding a new expert source or guide. I was beating myself up for not being able to handle the more complicated bits, but once I found a few guides that solved my problems simply I continued work on the project. If it's a skill that you're learning through the help of a how-to guide, video or class, then it's helpful to take a look at it from another angle. Photo by Joe Hall.
Take A Break And Walk Away For A Few Moments
A little later, I finally reached my breaking point and started throwing things around in frustration. This was after more than two hours of sustained work. When I calmed down a bit, I realised my big mistake — I'd worked too long and pushed myself too far.
In productivity author Tony Schwartz's book Be Excellent at Anything, he recommends a very simple rule for slowing yourself down when learning a new skill: force yourself to take a break every 90 minutes.
If you're anything like me, this is an incredibly valuable tip. I tend to dive headfirst into projects and before I know it I'm trying to digest too much information all at once. Extended training sessions are great when you're more of an expert and you don't want to break focus, but when you're learning something new — whether it's building a table or drawing a dragon — a break gives you the chance to step away, process the information you've just learnt, and then apply it moving forward. If you don't stop, you might miss mistakes you've made. Studies have also suggested that the break will help you move the new information you've learnt into long-term memory.
Sleep On It And Try To Find New Solutions
In my case I didn't slow down the process soon enough to catch my mistakes and save the project (more on that in the next section). However, if a short break as described above doesn't do the trick, you might want to consider stepping away and waiting overnight so you can approach the problem from a new direction and recover your project.
As we've mentioned before when we talked about beginner's luck, the reason beginners are so good at finding creative solutions is because they'll consider crazy ideas to rectify a situation. The "I suck" moment in a project usually comes around when you've reached a point where you feel like you can't complete it. Sometimes it's still possible if you re-angle your mind and reconsider your position. If you need to, take a day or two to think of other options. I can't even begin to count the times I've walked away from a project thinking it (and myself) a failure only to come up with a solution to finishing it days later. Photo by Perfecto Insecto.
Know When To Quit And Learn From Your Mistakes
This wasn't the first time I'd tried to build a table. In fact, my first attempt a few years ago went off without a hitch. My beginner's luck gave me the mental boost to try a more complicated project, but as it turns out, I wasn't ready for the more complicated carpentry I was attempting. We've talked before about knowing when to quit, and in my case, the moment came when I flipped the table over and realised my schematics were fundamentally flawed and the table wouldn't be able to hold all the music gear I was planning to put on it.
This was the ultimate "I suck" moment because I'd wasted an entire Saturday afternoon creating scrap wood. However, I walked away with the knowledge that I needed to spend more time drawing up a plan and less time drilling holes at random if I wanted to take on something more complicated than four legs and a tabletop. We've walked through how to learn from mistakes before, and when you fail it's important to make sure you've learnt something from the process. Photo by Joelk75.
Back Up And Try A Smaller Project To Rebuild Your Confidence
If you do have to abandon a particular project don't let it get you down too much. Again, learning from your mistakes is key to learning a new skill. Mistakes don't just help you improve your skills, they also help you plan your next project better because you know where you still need work. When you're prepared for that "I suck" moment you'll be able to mentally counter it with a better plan.
If you need a little confidence boost it's also a good idea to tackle a smaller project you know you can handle. On Sunday I disassembled the half-built table and used the scraps to make a bookshelf just because I knew I could do it. I then started in on a new design that's a little simpler but still challenging.
Keep Practising, You'll Get Better
Everyone knows practice makes perfect, but it's always good to remember. The way you practise is also important. In one study from the University of California, researchers found that mixing up a practice routine improves your memory of an activity because you're challenging yourself more. If you've reached a roadblock in a new skill where you feel like you're not progressing then it might be as simple as changing your practice routine to get through the block.
The big thing to remember is that while you might think you suck at a new skill in the moment you're always making progress forward as long as you're working at it. You're going to make mistakes, you're going to need to remedy them, learn when to quit, and when they really don't matter, so be prepared for the worst throughout the process.
How do you usually handle that "I suck at this" breaking point when taking on a new skill? Share your experience in the comments below.