The Competence Project

Sharon November 5th, 2008

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. -Robert A. Heinlein

I have an embarassing confession to make - I’m not handy at all, and I have absolutely no excuse for it.  You see, unlike my husband, who grew up in an apartment where a super handled any fixing, I grew up with two parents who were both extremely handy.  There was my Dad, who smelted his own bullets in our furnace, fixed things and taught me to handle a knife, an axe and screwdriver early on.  And, just in case I should try and get away with whining that I didn’t learn because I was a girl (total nonsense, my Dad would have had no truck with that), my step-mother is an extremely talented woodworker, who I got to watch renovate our home more or less by herself through my whole adolescence.  Sue is incredibly talented - I have beautiful bookcases, my sons have beautiful wooden toys and a gorgeous toy box - and whenever she comes to my house, runs about fixing everything that Eric and I are ignoring.  She tried hard to pass on her skills - and it didn’t take.  As a teenager, I was busy getting ready to live the life of the mind - the fact that even minds get broken toilets and funky wiring didn’t really register until after I left home.

Basically, the reason I’m not handy is that I’ve never bothered to really get the skill set in any coherent way - somehow when I was younger I wasn’t paying enough attention and didn’t realize what I was missing out on, and then I was busy getting other skill sets into order - busy learning gardening and farming, food preservation and mending (all, btw, skills I could have gotten from someone I was related to, but mostly didn’t - I sometimes wonder what the heck I was doing during my adolescence). 

Eric has the same lacks, with better excuse, although it is more embarassing for him, since he’s a guy, and thus “supposed to” know how to build stuff and fix things - particularly out in these parts where most of my neighbors pretty much could build their own houses from scratch with a McGyver-like collection of odds and ends.  We could probably make a plastic model of a house out of my son’s legos - but I wouldn’t bet on it not falling over.  We joke that there are two kinds of people in the world - the ones who have a window that won’t open and immediately rush over to fix it, because it shouldn’t be that way, and those who say “ok, I’ll just open the other window.”  We’re both the second kind, and there’s a price to that kind of laziness.

Now we’ve both been forced to learn some basics - we’ve gotten fairly good at small engine repair maintaining the ratty riding mower and the rag tag cars we’ve had over the years, and we can build simple, box shaped things.  They tend to look a little funny, though.  For a while I avoided most woodworking because I was pretty constantly pregnant or nursing and didn’t want the chemical exposure (and yes, I know there are ecological options out there), but that’s not been a good excuse for a while yet. 

And one of my New Year’s resolutions (yeah, I know it is only November, but we Jews get our New Year early) is to fix this gap.  Time for me to really understand how things go together, and get handy - at least enough.  I keep putting it off, though, because I really hate feeling incompetent. I remember when I first was learning to knit - I knew that eventually it would become as natural as breathing, but boy did I hate every single second of the period before it did - it was so frustrating, so maddening.  Why couldn’t I get good faster, dammit?!!  I don’t like to be bad at things - and of course, a period of being bad at things is required in order to get good.  It is easier not to try, to complain I can’t do it.

This was banged home to me the other day, when Isaiah, who is nearing five and in kindergarten, echoed my own internal whining.  You see, Isaiah is learning to read - and it isn’t his favorite thing.  He’s a natural at math and science, but unlike his big brother Simon, who picked up reading at 3 and never looked back, this language stuff is work for Isaiah.  Now don’t get me wrong - we’re in no hurry, and we’re not pushing him hard - he’s not even five yet, and we believe it is perfectly normal for him not to read for a while yet.  But we do require that he practice his letters and pre-reading activities, and do a little bit of practice sounding things out - maybe 10 minutes a day in total.

Well, yesterday, Isaiah told me that “I’ll do my reading work tomorrow.  Or the next day.  I’m not very good at it.”  I told him that I thought he was doing just fine, actually - that he was doing very well for his age.  And he told me that he liked math better, because it was easy, and he liked being good at things, so he didn’t want to learn to read if it meant not being good.  Well, out of the mouths of babes, as they say.

And I heard myself telling Isaiah that while it was ok that he didn’t want to read yet, that reading wasn’t one of that category of things that it matters much whether you are naturally talented or not - everyone needs to learn.  Barring some very serious disabilities, we pretty much accept that everyone is supposed to learn to read, and reasonably well (we’ll ignore the question of whether this happens or not).  I heard myself saying gently that there are certain things everyone needs to know, and reading is one of them.

And, of course, fixing things and being able to adapt your basic environment is too.  And of course, I don’t want my kids picking up the notion that learning how to do that isn’t just as important as learning how to read.  I want them to be as competent as they can be with language and with tools.  I was struck by my own cowardice - like Isaiah, I don’t want to be bad at it, so it is easier not to do it.  But the difference is that Isaiah’s only four, and he doesn’t really have to read right now.  We can let the whole thing go for a year or more, and be none the worse for it.  But the reality is that we might not have the money to pay people to fix our stuff soon - and I’m well past the age that I should be doing the work.

Periodically I hear others (and I do this myself) say “I’m not good at X” For X you can insert just about anything - growing food, sewing, cooking, repairing things.  Now sometimes this goes to a real physical disability that has to be overcome - or can’t.  There are things those of us with physical or intellectual limitations may never be able to do - just like there are people who will never master their times tables or learn to read.  But barring such disabilities, there are some things in life that the general consensus requires that we have a certain basic, minimal skill set in.  For example, children may come to reading or arithmetic with great difficulty or great ease, but the assumption is that they need to learn to read and do their times tables.  They may never do them naturally, but they have to be able to.  And the truth is that for most people who received an adequate education, they can read and figure, if laboriously.  

 There are large chunks of basic subsistence skills that we really need to treat as part of the same basic categories as reading and math - things that every adult person should have a certain level of minimal competence in, barring a true physical or mental barrier to them.  I’m not sure I’d use Robert Heinlein’s list quoted above, but you can come up with a decent one that isn’t too far off  and that prepares us for this new world where we can’t buy our way out of so many problems- all of us need to know how to cook a decent meal, handle an injury or illness crisis, tend a sick kid, fix a broken step, darn a sock, dehydrate a tomato, tell a story, grow a potato,  build a sun oven, bake a loaf of bread, put up fence, season cast iron, mend a rip, care for a dying person, sing a baby to sleep, clean a toilet, knit or crochet a sock, fix a roof, use a weapon, plant a tree,  immobilize a limb, make someone understand a counter-intuitive idea, save seed,  sharpen a knife, chop garlic, make beer, have courage, fix a bicycle tire, make soup, give a pep talk…

The truth is that for most people, with most things (and again, I know there are exceptions), “I’m not good at it” is a cop out.  The reality is that most of us aren’t going to be very good at everything - some things will always be struggle, and as long as we’ve got the time and money and energy to find alternative ways of dealing with it, it is perfectly fine to say that I want to reserve my struggling for things I care more about.  What’s not ok is telling our kids, or ourselves the lie that it is ok to use our fear of failure or our hatred of being bad at things as an excuse for picking up skills.

The other thing it isn’t ok to use as an excuse for this is division of labor, particularly by gender or class roles.  That’s not to say that there aren’t jobs that it won’t make sense to contract out to a partner or someone who needs the money - there’s nothing wrong with you saying “I have more money than time right now, I’m going to get someone to build in those pantry shelves.”  Nor is it bad to acknowledge that your 6’3, 200lb husband is probably better at hauling hay bales than a 5’1, 90lb spouse. 

But the reality is that spouses sometimes go away, and things happen when they aren’t around - and occasionally, they die or marriages break up.  Sometimes spouses are away just as the cattle need feeding, and the money dries up even though you really need those shelves.  The wrong attitude here is the “my wife does the cooking, so I don’t have to” or “I’m very important and I make lots of money, so I don’t have to know how to fix my bike.”  Instead, the idea is that all of us be able to handle the basics - we can hire our friend who is a talented seamstress to if there’s cash, but if rips need mending and there’s no money, we need to be able to make the clothes wearable.  All the men and boys need to know how to do “women’s work” at least to a competent minimum, and vice versa (and yes, I’m using the term ironically).  Everyone gets up on the roof, at least enough to be able to know how to keep the rain off - and then, if you are fortunate enough to have someone else in your life willing to go up in the rain and fix it, well, you can be grateful, but not dependent.

I’m going to bet that everyone one of us has a little guilty spot right now, a thing they know they should learn, a skill they’ve been avoiding picking up, something that they’ve already tried and put down in frustration because they sucked at it.  So I’m about to give you folks a bit of a challenge - I invite you to take a look at the holes in your own competence, pick one that needs filling, and get to work on filling it. 

My project is to get handy - I want to be able to build my own bookcases and fix my own plumbing.  I’ll be posting regularly about how it is all going, and I’m hoping for lots of support as I make plenty of stupid, incompetent mistakes. In turn, I really invite you to tell us about all your failures and inadequacies as you gain a skill you really need.  We promise, we aren’t going to let you fail.  And maybe you’ll inspire the rest of us to keep going, or to try yet another skill after we master the basics of this one. 

So who is in?


102 Responses to “The Competence Project”

  1. Creative Nurturing | Two Frog Home says:

    [...] the knit stitch over and over and over again.  Sharon over at Casaubon’s Book started The Competence Project, and I’m participating by learning to knit (the entire post is worth reading even if you [...]

  2. Barney Marchizano says:

    I wasent looking for that but still a great post

    how did you guys found this information??thank you for your post I saw it on Google And I bookmarked it .I like. Please send me updates

    thank you and have a nice day

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