The lawn mower lesson for learning
We all need to start somewhere.
I had never mowed a lawn until my late 20s. Normally my husband mows, but one spring, he was away for work. Before he left, he showed me how to start the engine, and I mowed a bit while he supervised and gave pointers.
When the grass was long again, I pulled out the lawn mower and got started. I was about halfway done when the engine started sputtering and stopped. It was out of gas.
I grabbed the gas can to refill it, but it had a new nozzle that is safer but harder to open (a similar principle to child-safe pill bottles). It was like a tiny Fort Knox. Try as I might, I couldn’t open it.
I felt defeated. Most people know how to put gas into a lawn mower, but I was too proud to call somebody and ask, “Can you show me how to do this?” I searched online, but couldn’t find the answer.
The next day, I realized that nobody was born knowing how to tune-up and maintain a machine. Some people just learn faster than others. I searched online for instructions again, and found several complaints about the harder-to-use nozzle. OK, so I wasn’t alone.
I went back, and knew that there had to be a way to open it, but it wasn’t obvious. Instead of twisting it (like the pill bottles), I pulled back the nozzle, and it opened.
I filled the tank, and mowed my lawn.
Learning is lifelong
The lawn mower lesson can apply to a lot of areas of life. There are many times when we stumble across something we don’t know. Often, we’re afraid to ask how to do something because we feel we should already know.
Our society is always amazed at prodigies: people who can pick something up effortlessly and master it. The reason we’re so astounded is because most of us can’t do that. The standard is to struggle, make mistakes, and spend years practicing before we become proficient at something.
Often, we’re afraid to ask how to do something because we feel we should already know.
This doubt at learning is reflected in our language: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” But if you’re open-minded and willing to try, you can learn.
Some people also say, “I’d love to switch careers, or go back to school … but it’s too late. I should’ve started sooner.” No, start now, when you’ve identified that desire.
You can ask for help
It’s OK to call a friend and say, “When you get a chance, can you show me how to do something?” Most people are delighted to teach you something they’re good at. It would be easy to let them do the task, but ask if you can do it while they guide you.
Make sure you reward them, too. I thank people for their time by making them a dessert or taking them out to lunch. I’ve yet to call someone, say I need help, and not have someone show up.
If there’s no one around to show you, there are still a lot of resources available. There is a Youtube video for just about everything, from sewing a button to changing a faucet. A simple Internet search can bring up articles, classes, or books. Learning has never been easier.
You can ask questions
How many times has a doctor told us something, and we’re not quite sure what he or she just said, but we say, “OK, thanks” and walk out of the exam room? We don’t want to look stupid, after all.
But asking questions is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength. The doctor went to school for years to learn this stuff; we didn’t. It’s your health, so don’t feel bad about saying, “Can you explain that medication again? I’m not sure I understood.”
Asking questions to make sure we understand something is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of strength.
Kids naturally ask questions — it’s how they learn about the world. But as we grow up, we learn that we’re supposed to look like we know what we’re doing. Have you ever asked a question in school and had a teacher snap, “Weren’t you paying attention?”
In high school, I’d just be quiet and let it go. But when I was in college, paying quite a bit to learn specialized math, a professor said that to me. I paid to take the class, so you can bet I was paying attention. I replied, “Yes, but I still don’t understand. Can you explain it again?” She did, and I finally got the concept.
Don’t beat yourself up over a mistake when you’re learning something new. If you’re stuck on something, and it seems impossible, keep trying. Even if we have a raw talent for something — like playing an instrument or competing in a sport — we still need training to master it.
I usually feel nervous when I try to talk to someone in Spanish. I’m still a beginner, and I often make grammatical mistakes or mispronounce words. People correct me quite often. At first I wondered if I should keep trying, but I’m also glad that people are honest and tell me the correct thing to say.
When expert speakers realize I know a little Spanish and I’m trying it out, their faces light up. If I ask a question about phrasing or ask them to repeat something, they are happy to help me. No one expects me to be fluent right away, but many people appreciate my efforts.
I’m always trying to learn something new. For years, I practiced writing. Now, when I have to write a paper for school or a report for work, I can do it quickly and with a lot less effort than if I were learning everything for the first time.
I’ve also resolved to learn photography, so that someday my own photos can accompany my articles. I bought a camera and I’m learning with an expert. I still don’t know a focal point from an aperture, but I’m ready to find out.
Don’t let a lack of experience keep you from seeking out knowledge or trying something new. We all need to start somewhere.