Why I don’t do things

A few months back, I was in St. Louis visiting my brother and some old college buddies. I stayed at Dr. Jeff’s swank suburban home during my visit and did my best to ignore the fact that my brother had–after a couple of years languishing in his medical residency–had again surpassed me in the realm of financial success. From the best electric shower in his bathroom to the luxurious decor, it was an experience and a half to see. After all, he’s still the guy who had to endure me blowing Corn Pops belches in his face when we were kids.

When I asked for the tour, Dr. Jeff was proud and showed me around his pad. There was the completely re-done den, outfitted with a massive HDTV mounted above the fireplace, infrared remote control systems, and a surround sound system that was loud enough to scare the wadding out of my kid. Every bathroom had been remodeled, the showers had a shower bench seat… In each one. I thought it looked great, but then they proceeded to tell me that they probably weren’t completely finished with their bathrooms yet. What next you may be asking? They told me that they were thinking about incorporating some Shower panels to make the bathrooms more appealing to the eye. I wonder what else they will decide to do? The back yard had been completely re-landscaped and outfitted with an irrigation system that would make most mansion owners jealous.

You can guarantee that if I had access to this amount of space in my backyard, that I’d be doing a lot more than just having it re-landscaped. We’ve recently heard that some people decide to transform their garden into a completely new living space, (if they have space to do so of course) and I loved that idea. If you have elderly relatives that you want to keep a closer eye on, it’s perfect, and not forgetting that it can increase the value of your home. What could be better? Our friends in Australia have recently done it, and decided to use this Sydney granny flat company, and let me tell you, it looks great. And I’m just going off the pictures. I only wish that we had the space to do it ourselves. I probably should’ve mentioned it to Dr. Jeff, but he was completely in awe of what he had done, so I didn’t want to ruin the mood.

And Dr. Jeff had done it all himself (with the help off his wife, of course, but still…). Somehow my little brother had found time in between saving lives, playing poker, hanging out with his friends, tending to ill-mannered dog, and settling into a new city to turn his house into something out of a magazine. I’ve only just been able to install our new Window Coverings and even then I was debating to have them installed by the same people I purchased them from!

For the love of everything holy, the little prick plumbed. He plumbed! He took me down to the basement and showed me a maze of water pipes in which he had run new tubes and experimented with some newfangled technology that only NASA and defense contractors use.

I thought back on the past ten years or so. We attended the same university and during the time we were there, he managed to develop the reputation as Crazy Smart Guy. That meant he could party as much as any of us, be as nuts as the next guy, and still managed to maintain a nearly perfect GPA and secure scholarships that paid for most of his medical school.

However, during all of it, the dude didn’t own a home until he moved to the southeast for his residency. Not once during our youth or college years did I ever see him pick up a hammer, screwdriver, or NASA tubing.

Now in St. Louis together, I asked, “How in the hell did you learn how to do all this?”

He didn’t really answer and only said mysteriously, “Once I did it once, it was easy.”


It’s no big secret. I am better at a lot of things (getting in trouble, making an ass of myself, and making bad decisions chief among them) than I am home repair. I’ve been known to hire Home Depot employees under-the-table and off-the-books just to avoid doing something as simple(?) as installing a toilet.

It’s a source of quite a bit of embarrassment for me, to be honest. It’s one thing to have my brother out-do me in the world of home improvement. It’s quite another to have a list as long as Rich McGuire’s manhood (long story…) of things I should’ve done around the house and just haven’t. I’ve told my wife I’m too busy. I’ve told her I’ll get to it. I’ve told her it’s not necessary.

So, now I’m home after a summer in Las Vegas and the list is still there. The good wife is not pushing me, preferring to let me re-acclimate myself to polite society. Still, the list grows longer every day. Lattice work for the deck. Light fixtures need changing. It isn’t as easy as it sounds, you know. I’m always skeptical when it comes to anything concerning lighting. You may think it sounds stupid, but imagine what one wrong move could do? I dread to think. My friend has just told me that the easiest thing for me to do would be to google something like “electrician commercial“, to see if I can find one that can change the lighting fixtures for me. I think my wife wants it to get done as soon as possible, so surely it doesn’t matter how I do it? I don’t know if she’ll agree, but by doing it this way, it allows me to focus on my other jobs, like how the kitchen needs to be remodeled. Bathrooms need skim-coated. The list of things requiring tools other than the one I was born with is frighteningly long and enough to make me want to avoid it completely. If I lived across the pond I would just hire a company that does home improvements Portsmouth, but alas that’s not an option.

There is a certain clarity that comes with leaving Sin City and re-joining suburban life. It’s in this moment of clarity that I came to a conclusion. It’s not a fear of the unknown that’s keeping me from keeping up with the Joneses.

It’s a fear of failing.

My wife has had a friend and her kids in town since I’ve been home and that’s left me a lot of time to think. The more I ruminated on my laziness around the house, I discovered that my fear of failure has pretty much handcuffed me in just about every avenue of my life. I have sat on my hands, completely paralyzed by an overriding fear that the simple act of trying will more than likely result in failing.

I don’t know how all this got started, but I can’t think of a time in my life in which I wasn’t worried about the implications of failure. I’ve found about a dozen defense mechanisms (few of them healthy) that have helped me survive to this point. If it weren’t for that, I’d probably be…well, I don’t even want to consider it.

Here’s a quick one. My wife and I decided we wanted to put some lattice on the bottom of our deck. Easy enough, right? Well, after picking out what we wanted during one fine and optimistic day, I tried to forget about it. I worried about everything from how to get the lattice home, to how I was going to cut it, to whether I’d be able to install it correctly. And, so it went undone. Maybe I should have just looked at a company that could install a new or upgraded deck so we could enjoy lounging outside…

Looking back at the past few years of my life, I’ve left so many things–easy things–undone that my list of incomplete projects outnumbers my complete list by about 10-1. Perhaps the most important undone project in recent years is the 50,000 words I put into NaNoWriMo back in November 2005. Here’s a snippet from the first chapter.

Sanchez was wrapped around the street sign like a performance artist in a climactic finale of “Man Loves Pole.” His black hair had fallen out of his hair net and was slicked against the sweat on his face. The tendons in his neck were taut. His eyes were shut tight. His knuckles were white. Every few seconds, as Reek stood watching in the street, Sanchez grunted a simple “Unnngh,” and started over. Reek had learned not to interfere.

After five minutes of pushing, yanking, twisting, and grunting, the street sign’s pole shifted against Sanchez’s small frame. With the care of a painter adding the final highlight to his portrait’s eyes, Sanchez turned the street sign 90 degrees, then stood back to admire his work for a second. He took off his hair net, slicked his hair back against his head, and then turned to see Reek watching.

“Bastards cemented the thing in again,” Sanchez said. “Okay, let’s go.”

Here’s the thing. After I hit the 50,000 word mark, I actually liked what I had written. I told myself, “It’s not finished, but I’ll get it done as soon as I can.”

Apart from moving the file from my old laptop to this one, I haven’t touched it since. And I hate myself for it, because I know the only reason I’m not doing it is because I’m afraid to finish. Finishing means the book is open to being a failure (unpublished, un-read, un-liked, uninspiring, un-ad-infinitum).

And, so now I have this revelation. I’m not lazy so much as scared. That’s a really sad thing for a thirty-something guy to admit.

I am not making myself any promises other than this: I’m going to confront failure.

This morning I woke up and did the lattice project in about four hours. It ain’t perfect, but I did it.

My wife came out and approved the job. “It looks great,” she said. She started to walk back in the house and I stopped her.

“I’m trying,” I said.

She didn’t say anything. It wasn’t the silence of disapproval. It was the silence of someone who has heard me say that same thing way too many times. She’s one of a few people who have believed in me–to a fault most of the time–more than I ever have believed in myself.

I looked at her, unsure whether I should say anything else. Finally, these words came out of my mouth.

“And I’m going to keep trying.”


Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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9 Responses

  1. Ya know, when I was teaching at the University, I taught a chapter on Life Satisfaction. Your post reminded of a particular aspect of those who tend to be more satisfied with their lives: they don’t compare themselves with those who are somehow seen as more successful or better off than they see themselves; instead,they tend to compare themselves with those who are somehow less successful or worse off (not in a gloating way, just in a manner of “counting their blessings” so to speak.)

    However, I respect your candidness. Also, a short time ago I nominated you for one of those silly Rockin’ Blogger awards for reasons I listed over at my place. Just FYI.

  2. Fear of failure is so much more palatable than laziness.

  3. I realize this goes far, far beyond the home repair metaphor, but it’s a good one, and I’ll just stick to that one.

    One thing that gets lost in the myriad home improvement shows (and even in your brother’s success story in man conquering tools) is that’s there is inevitable a shit-ton of screwing up that goes into any project, especially the first time you tackle it. Over time you screw up less and less, in smaller and smaller ways, but it’s always there.

    Which is kind of depressing but also sort of liberating. What got me over my own personal hump of fear was that I finally realized that if I failed, it was going to be on a very private stage. If I completely botch a bathroom remodel in the privacy of my home, cut through water pipes, and have to re-do the tile three times, well, that all sucks, but if I eventually get it right, well, that’s all that matters in the end.

    No one is privy to the myriad failures, so it’s just a matter of getting myself to the point where I can stomach my own incompetence as I slowly chip away at it over time in the quest for semi-competence. It doesn’t make it any less painful, and there’s a certain amount of fatalism involved when embarking on something that you know you’ll screw up, but it’s also slightly liberating, if you spin it the right way. Persistence goes a long ways.

    Or, you know, at least go to Lowe’s for installation services, as they’re a hell of a lot better than the fools at Home Depot.

  4. Strengths and weaknesses affect us all. You seem fixated on the latter.

    Don’t you think there might be a large group out there that be willing to swap and see it as a major upgrade?

    Great home, wife, kids… How many would kill for your inadequacy?

    That said, completing a project — even if it doesn’t win awards — is a good feeling. I think your on the right track.

  5. Anonymous JAR says:

    I recently learned something interesting: “If the pain of change is greater than the pain of same, we tend to stay the same. But, if the pain of same is greater than the pain change, we tend to change”. Your situation is no different than that of many people. Although, you have achieved far more than many, many other people. You are one of the most successful people I know.

  6. Anonymous Lyysool!! says:

    “…But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    — Gandalf,
    J.R.R. Tolkien,
    Fellowship of the Ring, Second chapter,
    “The Shadow of the Past”

    I say, keep doing what *you* do best… You only fail when you stop trying.

  7. Anonymous acousin says:

    It’s funny how sometimes you look at family and see them as so far above yourself only to find out we all have the same insecurities and fear of failure. It just goes to show that the grass isn’t always greener, just different and we should look past possible failures, beyond insecurities and see the potential we truely have and take it step by step, on project at a time.
    Life is a learning process that we start when we are kids, but we keep learning and we keep growing until we, well, die.
    We have all been blessed with unique gifts and we were all raised to work hard and cherish family. Although Dr Jeff is what appears to be superman, and you lead a life of travel that some can only dream of and you have the ability to put things into words and on paper that is so amazing, while I’m praying I haven’t misspelled something or misused punctuation. I haven’t figured my gifts or my talents out yet and I am nearly 35 and yes, I consider myself a failure. But when I look past myself and I see my kids I see the potential to grow them into wonderful adults and in that I can see beyond my failures and hope they do to.
    In our family we have singers, writers, bankers, we have those that work in fast food, payroll, we have hair dressers and salesmen, mommy’s and daddy’s. We have those that have made it to the top and those that will always seem to be climbing the ladder. And with that there has been a lot of failure and success, but no matter what happens in life, there is always family that sees the very best in you no matter how many times you fail or how many times you succeed, they still love you no matter what.

  8. Anonymous Little Willie says:

    BTW, I happen to have a leaking pipe in the basement with a bucket under it right now that I installed yesterday. Soldered that copper 3 times and still dripping. 52 fittings working great, one that just wants to sit there and laugh at me.

    Drip. Drip. Drip.
    (ha.) (ha.) (ha.)

    Also, I have probably wasted more money trying, failing, and re-trying than it would have cost to hire a professionals to do the jobs in the first place. That is not success, but rather stubborn ego.

    Congrats on the lattice, but I think it might be off a couple degrees from center (but who’s counting).

  9. I’m still wondering why you’re installing lettice instead of pouring dressing on it.

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