Doing things badly without falling apart—it’s the most important skill a wannabe nomad can learn.
Most Important Skill To Learn
Are you reading everything you can get your hands on to prepare for a life of boat cruising, RV life, or even a cross-country bike trip? Then you’re probably getting some great advice. But few advisors prepare you for the importance of being willing to try new things. Setting out, nearly everything will be new to you.
Not only do you need to be willing to try new things. You also have to be willing to stink at them while you improve your skills. And until you get better, your poor skills will result in near misses, vessel damage, and (hopefully) minor injuries.
But the pain of a cracked windshield or breaking a finger is nothing. Nothing, that is, compared to the emotional suffering some people feel when doing things badly.
Doing Things Badly
I didn’t learn to sail until I was in my mid-40s.
I learned how unequal pressure on a sail caused it to move forward. But even today I don’t understand it in a concrete way.
After the hundredth time pushing the tiller the opposite of the way I needed to move the boat, I despaired of ever learning what I needed to know. But my instructor at the community sailing program offered a ray of hope. He told me: “Don’t feel discouraged. People who take the longest to figure things out are often really good sailors once the information clicks.”
The encouragement worked. I kept sailing. And as each new skill became part of my muscle memory, sailing felt more natural.
From the beginning, my husband, Mike, was a vastly superior sailor to me. His grasp of physics and geometry made him stronger than me at the very start.
But my husband lacked one emotional skill that made cruising more challenging for him. While to me, the nomad life feels natural.
Being An Unhappy Cruiser
My husband has the dubious blessing of doing many things well—better than the average person. But without having to struggle to learn, he’s never learned to deal with doing stuff badly.
On land, if something felt too hard Mike would avoid it. Why make yourself miserable doing something poorly that you don’t need to do at all? Besides, it’s easy to pay other people to do things for you that you do poorly or don’t like doing at all.
Nomads don’t always have that luxury.
We cruise in the hardly-exciting Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway and the Chesapeake Bay. Even we have to rely on ourselves to fix a finicky outboard or deal with a furling jib that gets hung up at just the wrong time. And when solutions didn’t come easily, Mike felt frustrated.
A creative range of curses echoed through the boat—over even the simplest issues.
Becoming A Happy Nomad
Unlike my husband, I came to cruising expecting it to be difficult and knowing I would stink at it. I assumed things would be hard at first and that in time, I’d get better at just about everything.
Heck, I started out stinking at just getting the boat to move forward under sail. But when I docked perfectly without a bump or adjusted the sails perfectly in rough conditions, I felt accomplished.
When we moved aboard and began cruising, I expected the same kind of growth curve.
And because I didn’t hate myself every time I bumped a dock or failed to bring a slippery, mud-covered anchor up solo the first time I tried, I was able to notice things I was actually doing well.
I’ve felt great pride when I hand steered a straight compass course in a chaotic Georgia sound. And I was pleased to find the solution that quickly helped us unwrap the anchor rode from our keel in a confused anchorage.
Expecting to be bad in as we set out on our nomadic life gave me emotional room to notice and appreciate my skills improving.
And when the next new skill comes along (because the nomadic life is a never-ending test of your skills), I tell myself (what you need to tell yourself). “You’re going to stink at this. Do it anyway.”
Emotional Skills Are Key For Nomads
Go ahead. Ask my husband. He’ll tell you I’m no Zen master of calm when things go poorly.
Luckily, Mike loves me enough to partner in my cruising dream despite his discomfort with the learning curve—and the fact that I don’t always live up to my own aspirations of emotional maturity.
And I’ve enjoyed watching my husband’s growth in the essential skill of feeling alright about doing new stuff poorly. Maybe someday he’ll even learn to take joy in learning new things.
In fact, no skill is more crucial in the nomad life than the ability to feel relatively comfortable doing stuff badly—at least until your skills, knowledge, and muscle memory improve.
Stinking at stuff is the skill you need no matter how many years you cruise, travel by RV, or wander the earth by camel. Because every nomad will continually face challenges to their knowledge and skills.
We learned this lesson the hard way when an 18-year, single-handed sailor with experience on two oceans wrapped our anchor rode around his propeller.
As he left the anchorage, the cruiser decided to take a picture of Fort Matanzas as he motored by. Unfortunately, the current caught him by surprise. As his boat headed dangerously close to ours, the captain shifted into forward to move out of the way, snagging our anchor line on one of his propellers.
We spent the rest of the morning trying to unwrap our boats before having to cut our anchor away.
And I thought we two newbies were dumb. Ah well.
Since we moved aboard Meander in September 2015, we’ve learned more about the weather, currents, anchoring, navigating, diesel engine repair, etc. than we could have ever imagined.
This summer we’ll increase our skill set when we undertake major repairs to our rigging. Hopefully, we’ll feel comfortable with our discomfort so the project goes as smoothly as possible.
If you are striking out on your own adventure, give some thought to how comfortable you are doing things badly. And if you want to enjoy your nomadic life, it’s the emotional skill you’ll rely on a lot. No matter how smart you are.
This is a version of a post I wrote for The Boat Galley website. Thank you to Carolyn Shearlock for encouraging the conversation.
Your Turn: How do you feel when you try something new and find you stink at it?