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DIY: Closing the Confidence/Competence Gap

by Sarah Peterson

Recently, my spouse came to me with unpleasant news: “The garbage disposal is leaking.” Since I became a homeowner 11 years ago, I’ve done the lion’s share of the DIY repairs and updates we’ve made to our 1911 Beacon Hill home. Plumbing, however, is an area in which I’ve yet to make significant progress in my skill set. Googling the symptoms observed below the sink led me to a clear diagnosis: the disposal needed to be replaced. As much as I wasn’t thrilled about buying a new appliance, this meant that I could easily choose to pay for someone else to come install the device, saving me from a day of trips to the hardware store and watching how-to videos with my head underneath the sink.

Unfortunately, the universe had other plans for me. Though I tried to add an installation to my online purchase of the disposal, the big box store where I placed my order somehow lost my request. I spent way too long on the phone with the customer service desk, ultimately talking to six (!) different folks, an enigmatic set of conditions in my online account stumped everyone I spoke with - they just couldn’t find a way to link my account to the installation. Cursing our database overlords, I gave up and decided it was time to move to Plan B. With the new disposal already sitting in my kitchen, and less than thrilled with the prospect of trying to find and hire an independent contractor, I decided to give the installation a try myself.

Some people grow up sitting beside a handy parent as they tackle this type of task, handing them tools, watching, and learning. Some people find building, tinkering, and fixing compelling - even relaxing! - and build their skills through their own drive and interest. Some people are readily able to outsource repairs to a handy family member or paid contractors, allowing them to remain in blissful ignorance. For better or worse, none of these are descriptions of my experience. As I’ve transitioned from dorm room to apartment to homeownership, I’ve experienced no shortage of epic failures as I’ve tried to keep my living space functioning well.

The good news is that my homes weathered these epic failures with only a few desperate calls to professionals, lots of starting over, and a heavy dose of humility. After 20 years of practice, I know that a combination of persistence, YouTube, and well-placed phone calls to my handiest friend (who is, perhaps not coincidentally, HATCH board chair Jessica Ross) can get you pretty far.

This experience of trying things that you haven’t really been taught how to do is a big part of what we hope HATCH students will gain from the Work/LIFE program. Many young adults leave high school complaining that they’ve been taught trigonometry but not how to pay their taxes. This is absolutely a legitimate critique - but school just can’t provide direct instruction on every task graduates will face in their adult lives, for no other reason that the things they will need to take on 10 years from now might not yet exist!

The Work/LIFE program gives students the chance to figure things out in real time, in real life. Perhaps a student answers the phone at school and it’s an irate neighbor on the line, asking the school to do something about the students who gather on the sidewalk in front of their business after school - what to do?? While they might hand off the call to the “real adult” nearby, they’ll still get to observe the response and get coaching on how they might have handled it. The hope is that the next time a similar situation arises, the student might manage the challenge on their own, under the watchful eye of their mentor. It’s important for the student to learn that even their mentors haven’t rehearsed for every possible contingency! It’s not only okay, it’s expected to do the best you can, with the information you have, in the moment you’re in - even if it’s not perfect.

Turns out that installing the garbage disposal was really not very hard - and I wouldn’t have known that if circumstances hadn’t pushed me to try something I wasn’t confident about and would never have volunteered to do. That’s how we’re trying to close the confidence/competence gap at hatch HATCH: by creating authentic circumstances that challenge students to just try something - and as a result gain the assurance that the next time they run into a novel challenge, they’ll be able to figure it out.

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