Rewiring Work, Part 3

My first bench mate at school will be 21 in January. A month later I will be 45. When I am 50 I still will not have as much experience in the field as he has today at age 20.

That observation raises two points to note. The first is brief. Our cohort of 22 students is diverse in life experience. Where it lacks diversity in many ways, work experience varies dramatically from recently retired military and nearly retired doctors to business owners and scientists to recent college graduates and experienced mariners.There is little in the way to level the group except our daily school performance. The second is more remarkable to me. It seems this learning experience has wholly rattled our confidence. Evidence small and large has emerged from audible frustration and team disagreements to project redos and cool-down walks.

Confidence is not one thing. And confidence in oneself is not constant. Here at school, confidence is not knowing, not understanding, not progressing and — yet — continuing to try. Given how and what we’re learning it should come as no surprise. We are learning a wide range of concepts in a compressed period of time by studying and applying theory on a physical build-out of a system simulator panel. Everyday is a new experience.

For me, the learning experience has felt not like a rolling wave of confidence highs and lows, but rather a much more unpredictable and jagged-edge waveform that soars to peaks and plummets to new bottoms all before our 10AM break. I physically felt it in the beginning of the course. My 20 year old bench mate probably felt that I was feeling it, too. I would be quieter. I would study and study a diagram and ask for confirmation. I would frame and reframe questions to be sure I used the new vocabulary correctly. I would step away from faculty troubleshooting questions, not toward them.

Over time though, I began to not only feel but see those highs and lows and just how unproductive they were. The sweeping changes in confidence interfered with learning. So much so, it occurred to me that it wasn’t wavering confidence, it was fear of doing something wrong. And I knew — I rationally knew — that there was no way to be perfect at school, perfect at a new skill and knowledge base, perfect at being a student. Releasing those habits of mind that were perhaps ingrained decades ago is taking time. Doing so is introducing me to a new attitude. One that is curious and a bit more self-assured than self-aware.

Now, I pay closer attention to how other students engage. It is obvious that students who get a concept or have a knack for doing something engage in ways that I don’t. I also notice how rookies with as little experience as me engage in ways that I don’t. I see — among this range of personalities and life experience — how others ask questions in the moment they do something. I see them consult with faculty on a diagram or explain how they plan to do something. I see them talk through new concepts with one another. I see them compare what tool they used for a certain project.

I am picking up so much on the shop floor. Even though I am still slow to apply it — I offer my first best guess during troubleshooting, I don’t add preamble to discredit my questions during lectures, and I propose solutions. It sounds subtle. It is. Now, I speedily google terms throughout the day and make relative associations or analogies to get ideas and vocabulary to stick. I make graphic organizers to punctuate concepts. I volunteer first to try new things. Though I may take two steps back at times, I find a way to take one step forward. And each step is a more confident stride.

Overall what I thought was a crisis of confidence is more or less a discovery of who and how I am a student at this point in my life in this particular trade school environment. I may not have 5+ years of experience in this field, but I have a career of adapting to new work environments, colleagues’ working styles, and project constraints. That is a form of learning. (Ask Piaget!)

Recognizing that I am once again learning to learn breeds a new confidence that mitigates the fear of doing something wrong. While it is fundamentally reasonable to adhere to the fear instinct when learning how to use power tools and stationary machines, I also need to nurture the confidence that grows from practicing these new skills over time. As it turns out, my 20 year old bench mate clarified that for me. He just happened to do it by handing over power tools and telling me to let it rip.

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