The (uncomfortable) joy of incompetence

by Joanna Pieters | Follow her on Facebook here

Last night I went to the pub and learned to knit.

I’ve never aspired to making woolly things. I recall some kind of sponsored knit when I was in the Brownies, and being faintly horrified to discover that being ‘sponsored by the inch’ meant by the inch of knitted item, not inch of wool used.

The joy of incompetence - my knitting

But two of the teachers at school have babies on the way, and one of the other parents suggested we do a blanket knitting project, with anyone who’d like to contributing a square. A knitting evening was duly organised, and since there was encouragement, wine and company on offer, I thought I’d go along.

Turns out, learning to knit feels like rubbing your tummy, tapping your head and playing the bagpipes, all together.

My fondly held belief is that years of violin and piano practice have made me fairly dextrous. However, faced with wool needing to be wrapped in some mysterious way around them, and two crazily long needles which refused to stay at the angle I’d put them at, I might as well have had sausages on the end of my hands.

I realise I’m not used to feeling such incompetence. A teacher friend tells me that adults make terrible language learners because they want to be able to speak immediately, and give up when they can’t do it. I was also reminded of the technique used by some trainee violin teachers, where they have to play their instrument the wrong way round, to see just how alien and uncomfortable it feels to a new pupil.

Discomfort is alien

Discomfort is not enjoyable. I kept feeling the need to apologise to the patient mum beside me, for each time she had to show me – again – which angle I had to put the needle in, or needed to get me out of a panicked, ‘uh… have I messed up?’

Incompetence means vulnerability

But we need it. This week I’ve been agonising over a proposal for a possible book. It feels terribly hard. I keep thinking, ‘do I need to do this?’ Yesterday I thought I knew where I was going, and was enjoying smugly feeling ‘like a writer’. Today my brain is continually asking what on earth I think I’m doing. That, too, though, is ‘like a writer’. One doesn’t go without the other. I have to keep shouting my inner voice down, the ego bit that likes dextrous fingers and the thrill of big ideas: ‘Hard is fine! Hard is learning!’.

And, despite myself, there’s was a surprising joy of incompetence. It makes it ok to fail. I can already see that my knitting is uneven, that I’ve done a line of the wrong stitch and that I’ve still got rows and rows to go, but I’ve decided not to mind. I’m quite determined to finish my baby blanket contribution, though I know that it doesn’t matter if I don’t.

Beginning is where we learn

We can’t learn without being a beginner. I’ll get better, and the baby won’t mind an irregular few stitches.

Writing. Proposals. Dance. Knitting. Writing a blog. Setting up an email list. Hiring an assistant. 

We try. We get frustrated. We miss stitches, steps, opportunities. We want to give up.

Then we make a choice to be brave, and keep going anyway.

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