Imagine if you could always know when to stop, the instant of mental clarity after which all efforts are wasted. That crucial point when you need to stop to avoid making mistakes. What superpower would that be?
I was now officially homeless and asked my friend Pablo to host me for a couple of weeks. Pablo’s generousity shone again. Sam did not have time to review my electric circuit so I decided to start insulating the van regardless. It wasn’t the right way to do it but time was another luxury I lacked.
I looked for help in the wood and materials aisle of Home Depot early in the morning. There was an old punk cutting wood with the industrial saw. His body language screamed “I hate my job”. He had tattooed arms, large earrings, a shaved head and a yellow Mohawk, the proud symbol of a forgotten generation. I walked up to him, hoping he would be the expert I needed.
- Hello sir, I’m looking for insulation materials to put inside a van. Could you please help me?
- What? He looked at me over his shoulder and raised an eyebrow.
- I’m converting a van into a mobile home and I need to insulate the walls
- What are you doing that for? He deigned to turn around.
- I want to travel, from here to Argentina in that mobile home I’m building
He paused for a moment, then added with disdain:
- I don’t know anything about insulation. Here, read this!
He grabbed a pink brochure from the aisle and waived it at me, then he turned back again.
- Is there anyone who knows?
Thank you…asshole! I opened the brochure and sat down on the floor, reading. The whole thing was about product specifications, and I knew nothing. It must have been half an hour when a silouhette stood over me. I looked up. It was a young samurai in a Home Depot uniform. He had almond ayes, long black hair tied in a ponytail and a thin mustache.
- Can I help you sir?
A huge smile brightened my face.
- OH YES!!! YES YOU CAN!
I told him about my project. He found the adventure fascinating and was keen to help. He asked about the itinerary and the type of climate I would be in. Then he showed me the products and explained how to insulate the walls in great details. Faith in humanity restored!
I drove back to Rita’s garage, put a chill hip-hop playlist and got to work. Adding insulation felt like being back in primary school. It’s all about cutting and gluing. It derived a small sense of satisfaction…for the first hour.
You have to measure, cut and glue pieces of foam against the metal walls. The goal is to cover the whole surface from the inside, with three different layers. La Chichona is a big lady. I set up to put up the first layer before the end of the day.
Six hours later, I was still cutting and gluing. Focused on the task at hand, I didn’t eat nor rest for the whole day. For once I knew what to do, I needed to finish. I had to. Out of patience, I forced pieces together in any way I could, without measuring or drawing. In a clumsy move, I cut my hand deeply. Blood splashed. With my hands covered in glue, blood and sweat, I carried on. At sunset, I was dirty and worn out but I finished the first layer. I had made it.
My parents were expecting me for diner. I was so tired that my eyes closed for an instant on the highway. Realizing the danger, I opened the windows and blasted “Master of Puppets” to stay awake. Heavy metal to the rescue.
When you’re tired, your brain becomes hazy and slow … this is when bad things happen. Josh Waitzkin, an international chess and Tai Chi master, talks about that in his fantastic book “The Art of Learning”. It is not one mistake that causes defeat, but the accumulation of many. The first mistakes often creates negative emotions which lead to making more mistakes.
If you make a mistake and notice it, you can still save it. Be fast to reassess, cut your losses and regroup. If you don’t, you would act under the influence of a negative emotions, anger or sadness are the most common. They make you lose mental clarity, use poor judgement and make more mistakes. I should have stopped when I cut my finger.
I arrived at my parents’ hungry and exhausted. No way to embark on a 30-min parking quest. There was a narrow alley behind their apartment. I decided to leave la Chichona there. While parking in reverse, I miscalculated the distance. I went back and forth several times, failing to park on every attempt.
It was night and I didn’t notice the gravel on the ground. In my growing frustration, I dug the car into a hole…and got stuck. With one wheel deep into the ground, la Chichona leaned too far to the right and hit the brick wall. I walked out to see the damages: the sliding door got distorted. I was furious.
I called my dad for help and after several attempts, nothing. Every move was making the situation worse, and then it hit me: “Stop! Breathe! Walk away!” I stepped out and sat down on the alley. I asked my dad to take a break and chill with me for a minute. I needed to regroup and recover, a sound plan to get out of there.
We ate sandwiches and waited for about an hour, helpless but Zen. A group of teenagers walked by. My dad had an idea: to swing the van from side to side then accelerate during that tiny window when the van is on two wheels. It was an ambitious plan. I explained it to the boys, they got excited. They pushed hard in unison. After a couple of swings, we managed to get la Chichona unstuck, hallelujah!
I promised myself to be more aware of my emotional state. To pay attention and stop as soon as I make the first mistake. In theory it is simple. Being aware is the hard part, especially if you have a hot temper.
It is an essential skill to learn, the art of making mistakes.