Small steps, Sparks
August 10, 2018 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I have a terrible habit. When I'm interested in a new hobby, I tend to immediately jump in way over my head which leads to disaster and then I abandon the hobby. Intellectually, I know that I need to start small and work my way up, but I always aim high and fall flat. What are some practical ways in which I can deal with this frustrating aspect of my personality?

Current example: I am learning how to sew clothes. I picked a pattern that was way too advanced for me and sewed an unwearable mess. I threw the unwearable mess in the corner and haven't gone near my sewing corner for about a month. I truly thought that I could make the dress but I obviously didn't have the skills to tackle it. I wanted to do the Big Thing right away.

I KNOW that I should build up my skills first before tackling big projects. I can follow a course of study - I don't like doing it, but I will if it's very clearly laid out.

A good example of that is learning to play the banjo. I WISH that I was at Bill Monroe Level but to be honest, I'm a few steps below Kermit the Frog level. I have a Learn Banjo Book that I am working through. When I am comfortable with the exercises in the book I will level up to Beginners Bluegrass Jam at the local old time music store. From that point on - we'll see. First step is getting through the beginner book and going to jam. There is a clear path and instructions for each step. Yeah, I'm impatient, but I can adhere to the course of study.

My struggle comes when there is NOT a clear path or course of instruction. I am interested in finding a way to come up with steps by myself. I want to learn how to look at a topic like sewing, biking, cooking, whatever - and figure out how to break it into steps so that I don't jump in recklessly and unprepared. I am interested in looking at my end goal and breaking it down into logical, course of study steps.

How does one do this? Do you recognize yourself in my description of me-right-now - always jumping in full bore and failing utterly because you didn't have a strong foundation? How did you get over it?

One note: thanks to this comment, I am taking the "Learning how to learn again" class with Coursera. It's helpful so far but I'm only through week one.

Another note: I COULD get a teacher for every little thing I'm interested in, but then I would be absolutely broke. Please approach this question from the perspective that there are no teachers and therefore I need to work this out on my own. Thanks.
posted by Elly Vortex to Education (17 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
Something jumps out at me is the satisfaction from having completed or learned something. So yeah, you might not be able to make that dress right away but maybe a pair of sleep shorts or a head band. Something that is a still a sense of accomplishment.
posted by raccoon409 at 11:13 AM on August 10, 2018

I'm currently working on improving my knitting and doing more complicated patterns and projects. Right now my obsession is lace. For me, it's been finding patterns where I was confident in most of the pattern (such as the stitch types) but that there were one or two things that were new to me (purl two together through the back loop? Interesting!). I've been knitting off and on for most of my life but only now have I really been pushing myself. I totally get the desire to jump too far. But hey, I once had a sweater pattern that I really wanted to do, then realized I couldn't understand the pattern at all. Now, maybe 5 years later, I went back and found the pattern and the completed sweater is in my closet. Also, youtube is super helpful when working on a specific new thing. For the lace patterns I've been working on, I do a test knit of the pattern on a different (cheaper yarn) and thus I can learn how to do the pattern properly. Then I can knit it for real. Perhaps you can sew smaller projects that work on specific skill sets in sewing so you can develop the confidence when you use those skills for larger projects. For me, it's not at all the size of the thing I'm knitting that's the issue, but how complicated it is.
posted by acidnova at 11:24 AM on August 10, 2018

It sounds like you've found that books work for you with the banjo, why not do that with everything else? I tend to do this too, and I went to learning from books precisely because I didn't have the money to afford teachers.

Also, with books, they tend to have practical hands-on things to make for beginners as part of the learning process, so you have the "i actually made a thing" sense of accomplishment, but a) it's simple enough for you to have done with little to no early training at first, and b) the act of doing it gave you experience that can be built upon.

If there are particular hobbies which you'd been wanting to try, maybe we can recommend some specific books that can do the same thing that the banjo book is doing for you. This may not be a matter of "oh noes I am too impatient a student and I need to figure out how to not frustrate myself", this could simply be a matter of "so I've figured out that I learn best with a book showing me the steps, what are some books you can recommend?"

You've figured out that books work for you in one place. That sounds promising, that's clearly a way of learning that works for you. Let's go with that. I can recommend a great book for knitting, incidentally (it's how I learned myself, and I learned well enough that I used that same book to teach others).
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:26 AM on August 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

The biggest thing that resonates to me here is that it's okay to fail.

I'm a knitter, and I tackled what I would now call an intermediate pattern as my first project. I spent literally my first year on this scarf, I restarted countless times, and I literally didn't even know how to turn my work while keeping the right number of stitches. The beginning and end of the scarf look like 2 different people made them!

But I'm still proud because I did it. Is it great work? Nah. But I learned a lot while doing the project, and it kept me interested, and now I can knit things that look professional.
posted by DoubleLune at 11:29 AM on August 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Generally I google "beginning X" and find an online course at a place like Instructables. If it's crafty stuff you might investigate local maker and hobbyist spaces to see about classes. But yeah most hobbies have beginner books.
posted by edbles at 11:41 AM on August 10, 2018

I thought of sewing right away before I saw your below the fold!

Personally, I am the same. I like big projects! I like to jump right into the deep end!

BUT! I am also okay with failing, because that is one of the best ways to learn.

Don't worry about your dress chucked in the corner. Get more fabric and another pattern and go at it again. You'll be better every time you try, because you've learned from your previous mistakes.
posted by slipthought at 11:59 AM on August 10, 2018

You may not be able to afford a private teacher, but maybe something like YouTube lessons or follow-along projects could help you. It's natural to want to immediately be an expert. I think many of us have that inclination.

I also agree with do overs. For the dress, try it again. Buy muslin and retry until you get it right and then you can make your dress. Sometimes going over the same, hard road is the most satisfying way to learn.
posted by quince at 12:08 PM on August 10, 2018 [1 favorite]

Investigate the possibility that you have ADHD. I did not see it in myself until I researched it for someone else, and I have ADD. and now I have better coping skills.

Join groups. I dance with a group and am now at a great skill level but it took a long time to get here; the group was always fun, even as a beginner.
Take classes. Maybe in a sewing class, you can get the dress made. Adult Ed. programs have a lot to offer.
Recognize what you do accomplish; you're making progress with the banjo, no easy task. You're ready to try a simpler sewing project, maybe a top or skirt.
If you don't try new stuff, you'll be old and won't be able to sew or play banjo. The long game is worth playing.
posted by theora55 at 12:14 PM on August 10, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think your tastes outrun your abilities. You pursue Big Thing because you like high style and complexity, but the small simple things bore you before you're even finished. You don't want to wear them or eat them or play them. So I say: find low-skill projects of intrigue and elegance. You don't have to grind to get good. Or, get an audience! Maybe you don't care about sewing sleep shorts, but I bet some pal will be real impressed with your gift.
posted by fritillary at 12:36 PM on August 10, 2018

I want to learn how to look at a topic like sewing, biking, cooking, whatever - and figure out how to break it into steps so that I don't jump in recklessly and unprepared. I am interested in looking at my end goal and breaking it down into logical, course of study steps.

I have sewn only a few things in my life (maybe 4 dresses, couple aprons, curtains, a stuffed critter) so I am not an expert nor am I a rank beginner. It seems to me that most areas of expertise can be broken into similar subcategories: 1. General basics. 2. An intermediate level (or, specific interest areas). 3. Advanced level.

For machine sewing, you may already know the basics of sewing. If you don't need to start with the general basics, perhaps you simply need to go back to the pattern that was too hard and identify the parts of the pattern that were too challenging and then break those parts down into the areas that you need to learn. Did you have problems with the neckline? The sleeves? If you can figure out where you have knowledge gaps that matter to you, then you can go find resources that will teach you what you need to know. Then you can practice putting that knowledge to use until you are good at it.

For example, I like the look of smocking and yet I am never going to learn how to do it because I don't care enough. I do want to lean how to add pockets to various outfits I already own, so that's about to become my next sewing project. Also, a simple search on "intermediate techniques for X" will also give you a list of things that may be of interest.

(I am impressed that you are learning the banjo. Seriously, that is so cool. I would never have the patience.)
posted by Bella Donna at 12:51 PM on August 10, 2018

Part of the problem may be that you're not just learning how to do something for the heck of it (eg play banjo), the examples you give are creating tangible outcomes. If you were simply learning the skill as a general process, you wouldn't have any expectations of the items you produce - but because you WANT the item that you're going to try to make, your fully developed good taste in what you want is in conflict with your underdeveloped capabilities in making it. You don't particularly want a simple A-line skirt, so why waste time and materials to make junk you don't need or want and would never wear? But you're also skipping out on setting a waistband and sewing an even hem, and possibly adventures in zippers and buttonholes. When you're learning a skill as a child, the expectation is that a practice handicraft made by a 12-year-old will be successfully completed but have a couple of weird bits, and they will give it to their grandma, who has obviously always wanted a throw pillow with an felt applique kitten (with crooked ears). As an adult, we recognize that the pillow did not complement grandma's decor, and say that we're now only going to make useful/good/wanted things. But that takes away the possibility of practicing.
That's the problem. What's the answer? Dunno. Aim lower (which you and I both have trouble with, or if it's not fun to "make a beginner/intermediate A-line skirt" and try to force yourself to want it, then aim super-low and make things you know you don't even want but are what you'd tell a 12-year-old to make. Or do a study, like the sketches painters would do, except it's installing a zipper down the front of an old T-shirt to prove that you can make a zipper lie flat in knit.
posted by aimedwander at 1:36 PM on August 10, 2018 [5 favorites]

I agree with everyone else that has mentioned that failing is part of the process. It's also where you learn the most. I have a perfectionist type mentality and when I finish something, whether knitting or sewing or cooking, I immediately find the problems with it. However, I use that energy positively... I make note of the parts I could have done better and think about how I could improve it for the next time....what new approach can I try. Maybe a seam on the inside of a dress looks ugly to me, so I research different seam types (like french seams). Or I'm having problems sewing a straight line, then I practice on some throw away fabric. Identifying each individual problem and then forming my own test solution has worked well for me in improving my skills.

Also, like many other people have suggested, find small projects that reinforce skills you already have while challenging you in only one or two ways. Keeping it small means you have less of a time/resource investment. Making a dress can take a long time... If you need to practice a skill, find a small project where you can try your hand at it, and get the immediate feedback on whether it's working or not. I've been scared of zippers, so practicing making lined zipper pouches has been fun and a good way to learn all the ways I can possibly mess it up....without investing a lot of money or time until I learn what I need to learn.

And if nothing else, know you aren't alone. We all have things we'd love to be good at.....but sometimes we forget that being that good comes with a lot of trial and error before we are proficient at it. Ira Glass distills this nicely when he talks about creative work.
posted by pdxhiker at 3:05 PM on August 10, 2018

I'm also a go-big-or-go-home kinda person and an easily frustrated perfectionist. I absolutely need a tangible reason to get started on something - otherwise there's nothing holding me to it. For example, there's this jacket cosplay I've wanted to make for AGES but it wasn't until last year when I got cast in a show that I found a reason to make it.

Mind you, I have barely any sewing experience. I had zero idea what I was doing. And there were parts of the process where I did want to just throw it up in the air. But the show motivated me to keep going and it turned out not too bad actually!

A large part of what I had to be ok with (it's a work in progress) is that it's not a binary of Succeed or Fail. Sometimes it's "good enough" or "good for now" and that's Ok!

And sometimes it's better than you think - I'm working on a show right now (again, go big or go home - and good Lord this show is testing my perfectionism) and there's so many times where I feel like I'm just causing a mess. But I've gotten so many people telling me I'm doing great, I'm on the right track, it's working out. So perhaps that's what you need - people to support your journey and reaffirm that it's not actually as much of a failure as you think it is.
posted by divabat at 7:54 PM on August 10, 2018

It’s hard to know whether this will help or itself feeling like giving up.

I identify strongly with where you’re coming from. Indeed, in the moment, I get very frustrated and feel just as you do.

But almost inevitably I find that something from the activity seeped into my consciousness and affects my life in ways that I never expected. It’s there I find the feeling of success.

Example: a few years back, I went to a convention a few times where a fair number of attendees are programmers. I’m not a programmer and since I admired the programmers, I felt out of place and spent a lot of time punishing myself for not having buckled down when I was a kid and had all the time in the world to learn. (The truth is, I would not have been able to learn anyway for a variety of reasons.) I am awesome at self-recrimination. Let me know if you want some tips.

During one of those convention years, I was introduced to a book that explained practical examples about assembly language. I worked through 40% of the book and then proceeded to try to program something. After a year, I finished the program and it ain’t at all pretty. Indeed, it doesn’t work on a lot of the computers that it was written for. It bugs me.

And yet, I’ve found lots of places where the exposure to the knowledge seeped into my consciousness and informs a lot of things I see in everyday life. Is it practical knowledge? Sometimes. But I feel a real sense of accomplishment in having exposed myself and seeing those connections to the material much more than having finished anything concrete.

I think our culture simplifies success way too much. We look at someone like Steve Wozniak—the person who created one of the first successful microcomputers, the Apple II—and we talk about only the accomplishment and very little about the path to the accomplishment. The message implies there was no path to success; Woz just Had The Gift. They skip over the neighborhood filled with engineers and the high school with a strong electrical engineering program. They never talk about the failures. That, in my estimation, always leads to notions of instant success as success and everything else as failure or, at worst, a personal defect. I hate this cultural trope of ours.

The truth, as I see it, is there is solid usefulness in LEARNING. Even if one never creates the perfect program or the perfect sweater or whatever else, the journey itself is accomplishment enough.

For what it’s worth, Woz himself is a gracious and grounded individual. He has never implied that his successes came out of thin air. The trope comes out of our mass media.
posted by tcv at 6:12 AM on August 11, 2018

Ah, thrill of a new hobby! It took a while but gradually I realized some things didn't need to be hobbies per say but rather a topic I could learn more about to better enjoy the artistry and craft of what others created. The way I can identify a hobby vs an interest is do I enjoy the process itself? For example painting, I have grand ideas but no patience or real enjoyment for the process of building the skills needed to achieve my vision, so instead I focus on learning enough to appreciate the work of others. With sewing on the other hand, I've found I enjoy the process of creating and the learning process almost as much as the finished product, so sewing is a hobby I peruse.
posted by Bornanerd at 5:35 AM on August 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have been known to make two of something, such that I have a practice item and a final version, created either in parallel or in quick succession, however I can best optimize learning from my mistakes, pass/fail component pieces, getting it right the second time, and testing new procedures. And if I'm at least planning (if not executing) both items at the same time, then it's easier to focus on the success of the second than the failure of the first. Bonus, as someone hyper-critical of my own work, I can't stand looking at my practice version - but it's often decent enough that friends love it and I can give it away.
posted by aimedwander at 1:37 PM on August 14, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thank you all for your thoughts! A few notes -

- I do have ADHD. This is the kind of situation in which it really rears its ugly head.

- Although I gave the example of sewing, the jump-in-the-deep-end habit is an ongoing thing with me: I think I can do something that I haven't worked up to. I think that it has some roots in my childhood - everything came easily to me as a kid. I still will look at a thing (a complicated coat I want to make, a 100-mile hiking trip that I want to take, a large project that I want to undertake) and think it looks do-able with the skills I currently have...but I am oh so wrong.

- Yesterday I forced myself to sit down and not only make an easy A-line skirt, I made a MUSLIN of the easy A-line skirt. I even did a few extra practice buttonholes. And you know what? It looks great. I wore it all afternoon. It looks good but I see where I can make improvements when I do the for-real version next week. I'm going to force myself to take those small steps and, maybe in a few years, I'll be able to tackle that complicated coat and it'll be a breeze.
posted by Elly Vortex at 9:12 AM on August 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

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