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Intro to Incompetence

Updated: Jan 17

There is a reason you fail at work. You don’t even know what work is.

I was a stoned and incompetent, guitar playing, drop out of a 16 year old when I volunteered to fight a brutal monster called work. I had been a dishwasher and a pizza flipper already, but this was a real descent into hell. This was foundation repair. I unwittingly signed up to dig postholes under a house to make concrete footings to repair a foundation.

Anytime you try something new, you are going to break yourself against the reality of everything you are not. Let that sink in.

Your Self Image

When you picture yourself digging a hole, you are standing up straight in your overalls, gloves and straw hat on a nice cool day, clouds in the sky, nice breeze, posed elegantly with a long handled spade. There might be, blurred out in the background, an oversized umbrella over top of a collapsible table and chair, tall glass of icy lemonade to quench your thirst. Clouds are in the sky, a gentle breeze blows by. Your body weight gently presses the blade into a moist and supple earth like a hot spoon into partially thawed ice cream.

This is not that. This is anything but.

Your Self Image Vs. The Truth

The job is to lay on your stomach and muscle your digging tools to move enough earth to fashion a cavity that’s over five times bigger than a five gallon bucket and holds over 26 gallons of water. You have no idea how hard it is. A posthole under a house is a judgmental monster that laughs at your feeble attempts. It’s a bully with his hand on your forehead letting you swing angry, useless punches. Then when he’s bored with you, he nails you with a quick jab, jab and a right hook and knocks you out. I quit in shambles the first day by lunchtime, spun around, shaking and dizzy, judged incompetent and unworthy by the maelstrom I was completely unprepared for.

What Goes Through Your Mind

You manage to dig a hole, but its not right. It’s not a nice cylinder with a flat bottom, It’s not two feet deep or eighteen inches wide. Its way too narrow at the bottom and it’s definitely not flat. That would actually take some skill. But you have no skill. You know what flat looks like. You know what wide enough looks like. But it’s so much harder than you ever imagined. You rethink your life and try to figure out a way to get out of it. Conflicted, you ask yourself, “Do I let a hole beat me? Do I give up? Am I not smarter than this hole? Why is this so hard? And I have to do this all day? And then tomorrow?”

You have to decide within yourself who is going to win. It’s a contest that if you intend to win, you are going to have to muster up strength you didn’t know you had, work out a strategy you’ve never tried before, try new techniques, use your body in a different way, sweat, fail, try again, over and over. You have never been in this particular place before. If you win, you get stronger. If you lose, you are a loser. Surely you can win the fight against an inanimate object, no?

You ask if it’s good enough, hoping for mercy and the monster just laughs at you.. Why? Because you know what its supposed to look like. You know you aren’t cutting it. You know you aren’t going to make it. You are just looking for permission to give up. You don’t have what it takes. You went toe-to-toe with a monster and lost. You are a loser. Nobody has to tell you. It’s staring you right in the face. You didn’t finish.

What Now? Try Again.

It’s an elite bunch that conquer such monsters and I didn’t make the cut. I wasn’t good enough, not strong enough, no stamina, no resolve, nothing. It was a gnawing terrible feeling. What would I tell my Dad? My friends? What if I saw the man who first gave me an opportunity? As a failure, I couldn’t imagine even looking him in the eye. But failure as I was, one thing I could do was muster up the courage to go to him again, look him in the eye to ask for another shot at the monster. I could do that.

So I did. And to my surprise, he gave me another chance. To get a second chance, you have to ask for it. And even asking for it, you might not get it. A second chance is mercy. If you do get it, its up to you not to blow it. The person who let me try again was Bobby Fisher, a recovering alcoholic, a heroin addict and an outlaw. He gave me a chance - my chance, and I took it. Digging holes under houses broke me, but also resurrected and reshaped me. I defeated the monster, made it my servant and ultimately turned it into my own business. Thus began a life long adventure battling judgmental monsters, throwing myself into dark pits to conquer the unknown. I defeated this one. I can defeat another one. I know how to do it now.

Emerging Competence

Make no mistake about it. A contender who descends under a house to dig a deep flat bottomed hole is worthy of respect, defeating the monster or otherwise. Most people will never even enter the arena. But the contender that defeats the monster inherits the monster’s most dominant characteristics like grit, toughness, and strength and emerges a better and more competent person, having also conquered internal psychological fears like self doubt and anxiety. Fear and doubt dissolved, the contender emerges champion, newly free to ascend and descend at will to sharpen and perfect monster defeating skill craft until all monster elements are utterly dissolved, extracted and absorbed.

This has been on my mind a lot lately, now that I am in the business of bringing new life to old windows. One of the things we have to do is scrape windows, and for a lot of people, this is the deal breaker. They’d rather do anything else. The work sucks. It’s messy and hot. There’s no comfortable way to go about it. But it’s fundamental. To me it’s no different than digging a hole. For Window Craft, it’s a rite of passage that breaks a lot of people. But the truth is that if you can’t scrape a window, you’ll never make it. It’s a movement that has to be mastered.

You have to be willing for your self image to be broken against the reality of truth, for your work to be awful at first, for it to take longer, to get hurt, to get beat up. But this test of resolve will, if you get through it, show you not just what you are made of, but that you are competent. As a competent person, you are capable of a lot more than you imagined.

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