I Am So Incredibly Good At This

Graph showing mood and real and perceived competence

One thing (well, really the only thing) I love about being truly incompetent at home repairs is that when I do manage to complete a DIY project, no matter how small, I get a huge feeling of accomplishment completely out of proportion to my actual achievement. I still remember how giddy I was the first time I replaced a washer in a kitchen faucet (with only three trips to Home Depot!) and the heady feeling of euphoria I got when I assembled my Ikea chair.

Last night, I did something truly amazing — I fixed a plumbing leak. Sure, to an outsider, it might look like I just screwed two pieces of PVC pipe together under my kitchen sink, but the reality is that I:

  1. Noticed the leak in the first place and didn’t just assume that my feet had suddenly started sweating profusely. This means that I managed to avoid both a plumber’s service call and many hours wasted searching the Internet for information about diseases that cause excessive perspiration in feet.
  2. Noticed a gap between two pieces of pipe, and deduced that a) water would spill out of that gap and b) that’s probably not supposed to happen.
  3. Repositioned the pipes and screwed in the thingy that holds them together, with my bare hands.

So, as you can imagine, I’m feeling pretty good right now. Here’s a graph showing exactly how good.

Graph showing mood and real and perceived competence
Mood and real and perceived competence for something I'm bad at.

The graph shows my mood (red line), perceived competence (green line), and actual competence (blue line) over the course of two DIY projects. The first project is pretty typical for me: I make some plans, try to carry them out, and then either give up or fail. The second project is something trivial that I actually succeed at, like last night’s plumbing repair. In the first project, my confidence in my own abilities rises during the planning process but then falls abruptly when I start actually doing the project and discover how difficult it really is — none of this really affects my mood, though, because failing at something I already know I’m pretty bad at isn’t that big a deal. In the second project, my tiny success makes me wildly happy and convinces me that I’m much better at this stuff than I thought. Both effects eventually wear off.

Occasionally, a DIY project will require that I make a trip to a small independent hardware store. I’m terrified of those places — I imagine dozens of employees and customers just waiting to taunt me, jeer at me, and then finally run me out of the place with pitchforks. I don’t even know whether they sell pitchforks at hardware stores, but I assume that if they don’t, they have a conveniently located pitchfork storeroom somewhere in the building. That’s why I always bring something with me. Usually, it’s the part that I think I need to replace, but I’ve brought in other things as well. When I wanted to get a key for the ancient locks in some of my interior doors, I removed the lock mechanism from one of the doors and brought that in — if I hadn’t been able to figure out how to remove it, I probably would have strapped the whole door to the roof of my car and then dragged it into the store. Whatever I bring, I’m counting on it to a) help me find what I need as quickly as possible, and b) cause at least a momentary distraction when I fling it at the angry mob chasing me out of the store.

I approach the store with trepidation, desperately clutching whatever item I’ve brought with me. I step through the doors and am pleasantly surprised to find that I don’t immediately burst into flames. Instead of an angry mob, I see a handful of people going about their business, but at this point I can’t tell whether they just haven’t noticed me or whether they’re stalling while someone looks for the keys to the pitchfork closet. Trying to act casual, I make my way to what I think is the right aisle for the item I’m looking for. I start searching through the shelves and soon become so confused that I let my guard down — and that’s when the one thing I’ve been truly afraid of happens: an employee approaches and asks if he can help me find anything. I consider making a run for it, but instead I describe my problem and show him the item I brought in. Then we have this conversation:

Him: Oh, you need a compression washer; those are over here.
He leads me to another aisle. On the way, we have a friendly conversation about my repair that concludes with something like this:
Him: Here you go.
Me: Thanks. By the way, what’s the difference between this washer and the ones I was looking at earlier?
Him: Well, technically, those weren’t washers; they were paintbrushes.
Me: Oh. What do you use them for?
Him: Applying paint to surfaces.
Me: Oh! Like, if you wanted to make your walls a different color?

The really amazing thing about this conversation is that it’s carried out without the slightest hint of condescension. How did he learn to be so patient? Do they have classes in that room I thought was the pitchfork closet?

Eventually, I go home, follow the advice I was given, and everything works (or the project fails for some completely unrelated reason). I decide the hardware store is my favorite place ever and wish I had reasons to visit more often. Somehow, I manage to forget all of this pretty quickly, and the next time I need to do a repair, the cycle begins anew.

Right now, though, I’m still feeling pretty excited about fixing that plumbing leak. I think I’ll go bask in the glory of past successes and gaze fondly at that Ikea chair I put together (I won’t sit in it, though, because it’s always looked a little wobbly).

So, what about you? Do you suffer from DIY anxiety and/or delusions of DIY grandeur?

11 thoughts on “I Am So Incredibly Good At This

  1. Too funny- i’m so glad you got it sorted out, i mean… what kind of mess would you have made had you installed the paintbrush instead of the washer?

    and what kind of explanation would you give the repairman when he saw it?

    1. Explaining it to the repairman is the worst part. I usually start by trying to determine whether I truly need to call one (“Do I really need a kitchen sink? Does the drain have to work? Would keeping a bucket under the sink and emptying it into the bathtub several times a day really be that bad?”). If it turns out that I do, I’ll try to come up with a convincing explanation (“Burglars broke in and vandalized my kitchen sink. Yes, this kind of thing does seem to happen to me a lot.”).

  2. I’m trying to remember my last comparable success. (I’ve been trying for several minutes now.) I think it was a couple of years ago in Alaska, when my gas cap door had frozen stuck and I was almost out of gas. I borrowed a screwdriver (yes, I own a screwdriver, but I was at a gas station and didn’t have one with me) and chipped away at the ice until the door could spring free. Immediate euphoria followed…

  3. Ah this was so great!

    I become half-hearted and then I give up. So I have a chair that makes a loud CLANK every now and then and two hooks on my door that couldn’t be screwed in properly so they hang loosely (but tight enough to hold up clothes! win! )… I know exactly what you mean about hardware stores. Mine even has huge signs that say PAINTBRUSHES, BATHROOM EQUIP etc. Still I get lost. They usually find me roaming around in the fishing section looking for lightbulbs. :P

  4. You know what, next time something breaks I’m going to tell the repairman that Laura did it. Problem solved. It’s not my fault there’s a tomato holding the toilet cystern in place. Must’ve been Laura.

    1. I would never recommend a tomato for that purpose — tomatoes are way too squishy. You should use something more solid, like a carrot. Or a paintbrush.

      1. haha! I actually used dental floss once. The loo broke on a Sunday at 5pm, no plumbers in this little town will come round at that time. So to prevent flooding our dodgy rented digs, we held the cistern together with dental floss :P

  5. congrats on your DYI triumph! This was great to read about. The letters “DYI” cause me to panic. I don’t even think about fixing it myself – too must destruction. I call a professional. Or my dad.

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