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The Joy of Doing Hard Things

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I learned to use Excel this year because it is a practical and rare skill. I am not a master, I will never be a master and that is fine because I will likely never need to use Excel ever. The whole thing started with me confronting a feeling that I have had for most of my life. I have always felt that I am truly good at just one thing. This. Writing.

All my intellectual energy went into acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge that it would take to be a successful writer. The first casualty in my pursuit of literary greatness was mathematics. I trained my brain to learn words, to recognize metaphor and turn strings of unrelated happenings into stories. When I encountered Algebra, I did not know what to do with it.

And it worked. I am building a career for myself in writing. But the nagging feeling remained and I set up a challenge for myself just to get rid of it. I had no intention of going back to math class or retaking the compulsory statistics unit in university. I decided to learn how to use Microsoft Excel, mysterious formulas and all. I found the official free course and set myself a goal of completing it in ten weeks.

I wanted to quit immediately. My brain protested against the renewed use of pathways left abandoned for years. Half an hour doing exercises left me more exhausted than writing whole term papers used to. Give me Okwonkwo, give me James Baldwin…not this number stuff.

You know what comes next. I got better with each week. It was still unbelievably hard and for those of you rolling your eyes at my plight – I hope you know how and when to use the Oxford comma. There was no hidden love for math inside me but I discovered that I could learn something new. And not just new, complicated and boring as well. I could barely dig up enough interest each day to do the exercises but I did it anyway. Each morsel of progress was triumph, each step back a chance to try and win again.  The best thing about Excel is that when the table is right, it is right. Errors are fixable and perfection can be defined. The closest I shall ever come to knowing that an article is right is a gut feeling that could just be heartburn.

This is not an article about learning a new skill in order to apply it to real life. No one in their right mind could trust me to put together an Excel sheet if they had a computer packages graduate at hand. I sought out to see if I could do well at something that did not come naturally to me and I think I did. I also learned that there is joy in doing something for the sake of doing it. And last, I learned that some barriers are entirely made up.

Who knows? Maybe if I’d had good math teachers and bad English teachers I’d be an actuary worrying about my atrocious grammar. Step outside your comfort zone today.

Joy Matiri

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