The Grandpa and the Accountant (or: how to quit beating yourself up and stop sucking at things)

Let me tell you a story. In my previous job I was the IT Manager at a real estate office. One of our construction guys always asked us questions about how to work his Blackberry smartphone. This guy was ten white hairs away from being a perfect church Santa Claus, like 75 years old, showed us pictures of his beloved grandkids, had calloused fingers the size of hot dogs that to this day I’m surprised were able to use that tiny keyboard. Finally one day he asks “is there a manual for this thing? I want to just study it so I don’t have to bug you guys every time I have a dumb question.”

We’re like “uhhhh, they stopped including printed manuals for these things years ago, but let me Google,” and sure enough we can print off all 195 pages and send him home with a manual for his Blackberry.

A month later, he comes back asking about how to do a corporate directory lookup to get contact details for employees he doesn’t have info on, and we’re scratching our heads, he found a feature we didn’t even know about and we’re responsible for running the dang Blackberry server itself. Five minutes later we figure it out and at that moment this field construction supervisor officially knows more about Blackberry smartphones than anyone else in the whole company.

The reason I hold onto this story is because it’s a stark contrast compared to some other people at that company. We had college-educated, white-collar accountants in that office who would always say stuff like “oh I’m not a computer person” or “computers hate me” or “I can’t figure it out, it’s your job, can you help me…” often for easy, highly-googleable problems like Excel formulas. Stuff that was literally part of their job and not part of ours. I’ve never claimed to be better at Excel formulas than an accountant.

The difference between them and my favorite construction grandpa, and between them and us IT staff, wasn’t brains or experience or anything more than time, motivation, and using the resources available to us. I Google nearly everything for my job nearly every day. I pay my rent off what’s essentially just a long multi-year series of mistakes that I make and then correct. I’m not that smart, I just have a process by which I go from not-knowing and broken, to knowing-more and fixed, and guess what there’s no shame involved in that process. And I’ve noticed it seems like it can be especially hard for women because it seems women have been disproportionately discouraged compared to their male colleagues: their self esteem and ego aren’t as intact, maybe their math-word-problem skills have been trashed by crappy math teachers or society’s gender stereotypes at an early age. Who knows. But when people say stuff like “I’m no good at ____” it’s like they’re diagnosing themselves with a disease they don’t have. The reality is just that their skills or confidence need leveling up. That’s it.

When people don’t develop tenacity or desire to improve, or shame themselves, they end up in a self-fulfilling prophecy of “I can’t do it.” Barring some massive disability they likely can do it, it just takes practice: remember that Einstein quote, genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. Or my favorite motivational line, “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

Nobody’s good at riding a bike the first time they hop on. Don’t beat yourself up about it, just keep at it, I promise you’ll get it if it’s what you want.

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