There’s a story my dad used to tell about when he was a kid in the first grade learning to read. The teacher’s method of instruction was to call on the children one-by-one to stand up in front of everybody and read a few sentences from a story book, and then to correct them and help them along if they ran into trouble – which of course they always did, it being a first grade reading class! Well, on this day she called on my father first. He slowly got to his feet, red with embarrassment, and respectfully declined her request. “I’m sorry, teacher. You’ll have to ask someone else. I can’t read.”
I just LOVE that story, because it shows the deep roots (already present when we’re only 6 years old!) of our reluctance to publicly attempt something that we’re not completely confident about – in other words, our fear of making mistakes in front of others. There he was, in a setting DESIGNED to help him learn, and he felt he couldn’t participate because he hadn’t already mastered the subject!
Not to unfairly single out my dad, let me tell you MY first grade story. My friend Patty walked up to me during recess with an untied shoe and asked me to tie it for her. I didn’t know how to tie shoes – but no way was I going to tell HER that (or the rest of the kids on the playground). Knowing, in general, what a tied shoelace was supposed to look like, I set to work and engineered something truly monstrous, although it did have two floppy loops that looked vaguely bow-like. I shudder to think what her mother went through that night when she tried to undo the mass of knots and free her child from the shoe. She probably had to cut the lace out entirely.
Oh, the things we do in our youth to avoid seeming less than perfect in public! Fortunately, we outgrow that, right?
My hair is now mostly gray, but last week I found myself stuck on a problem that I increasingly suspected was somehow my own doing, and you would think I’d know better by now, but I found myself delaying and finding hinky work-arounds rather than pestering my mentor. (“Pestering” was the way I put it to myself, but the fact is that I was discouraged that I couldn’t figure out the problem myself, and also I didn’t want to look dumb.) The problem involved a test environment that I for some reason was unable to log into. Fortunately for me and my sudden reversion back to my first-grade mind set, my mentor happened to mention that the environment had been down for a while, and so we began to talk about it. And when the test environment came back and I STILL couldn’t log in, she collaborated with me to diagnose the problem, showing by example different steps that I could take to determine whether the problem was with the server, my machine, a specific browser on my machine, the number of browser tabs open at the time of the login attempt, or even the state of the cache on a particular browser. (It turned out that clearing the cache on Chrome and rebooting was enough to enable me to log in to the testing server again.)
It was very instructive watching my mentor tick through various diagnostic tests on her end — and now I have all that in my toolbox if some variation of the problem arises in the future — but do you want to know what was actually the most inspiring part? At some point in the thick of it all, she made the remark “This is all very interesting.”
Wait. What? Interesting? WOW! In one off-hand remark, she completely reframed the notion of having a problem! It’s not the end of the world, it’s not failure, it’s not Evidence of My Ineptitude, it’s not obstruction (well, yeah, it’s temporarily obstruction, but not ONLY that) — it’s interesting! A puzzle to be solved. Looking at it that way not only changes how I feel about being stuck, it makes me much more willing to ask others for input on my problem interesting puzzle.
Okay, one last story. It takes place on a movie set, but like open source projects, movie-making is an intensely collaborative effort.
I read about this 20 years ago and it’s stayed with me ever since. There was film-making company that was losing a lot of money during production because mistakes would happen on the set and go undetected until the director viewed the dailies (the raw footage from that day’s shooting). They’d have to go back and reshoot the scene at enormous expense. The director looked into why this was happening, and he found that people were so worried about messing up that, if they ran into a problem or made a mistake, they would not MENTION it to anybody and would instead just hope that it would go unnoticed. So the director instituted something new – he told the crew that prizes would be awarded on the spot to anybody on the set who ran into a problem and PROCLAIMED it right away. Boom! Everything changed. People shouted out when they were stuck, and others would rush over to help problem-solve. The whole operation became much more efficient and joyful, and bad dailies became a thing of the past.
I hope any or all of these stories help loosen the hold of whatever inside you thinks you need to be perfect before you can dive in. (And I hope you remind ME to reread them the next time I’m hemming and hawing and futzing around with hinky work-arounds rather than taking it to the team, lol!)