The Five Phases of DIY Learning

Reprinted from the Turbo Diesel Register
Issue 75 – February/March/April 2012
Author: Mark Barnes, Ph.D.

We are reprinting this article since many of Geno’s Garage customers do their own maintenance and repair work on their Dodge Turbo Diesel trucks. We are sure you have experienced one or more of these phases will learning to work on your truck by yourself.

THE FIVE PHASES OF D.I.Y. LEARNING

Most of us have been there. Perhaps by choice, perhaps not. Some take it as reason to never attempt anything of the sort again. Others are spurred on, feeling more confident—or at least lucky.

I’m talking about the experience of stumbling through a new mechanical operation, learning by doing. While instructional materials may be involved—shop manuals, web pages, how-to videos, etc.—this particular type of work proceeds without a seasoned mentor. Live assistance of that sort prevents certain key events, such as getting steps out of sequence, forgetting where pieces go, discovering the necessity of some special tool or arcane ancillary procedure (briefly referenced in those instructions, but never explained). Expert help also prevents panic attacks. You can’t feel you’re in over your head—with all the associated terror, nauseating regret and scathing self-reproach—with a lifeguard holding your hand.

No, you’ve got to really be on your own. Any helpers can’t be more knowledgeable than you. It’s got to be your vehicle at stake, and your wallet that’ll be tapped for any mistakes. Also, it’s best if you know what this job would have cost, had you let the professionals do it, so you’ll know exactly how much money you are—or are not—saving as your expenses accumulate, along with the extra time and angst.

So, without further ado, let’s dive right in, shall we?

Phase One: Diving In

You’ve just been told repair or modification X will cost some shockingly exorbitant amount of money at the local shop. You’re angry, depressed, or both. This is not what you’d expected. You’ve got to force reality back inside the parameters you’d imagined. You’re not shelling out your hard-earned money for someone else to do something you can do for yourself!

The more you think about it, the more determined you become. You’d already earmarked those funds for something else—some necessities, or at least something you’re not willing to forego, even if it’s just maintaining that cushion in your savings account. Or, maybe your budget is already stretched. You’re going to have to rise to the occasion here because there simply aren’t enough resources handy to allow you the luxury of others’ service. You put on your race face and steel your resolve. You boldly decide to D.I.Y.

Or, maybe there’s no necessity involved, no anger or resignation—just curiosity and a confidence (realistic or not) in your ability to swim when thrown into the water. You take the plunge thinking it’s going to be… “fun.” If you’re really good at rationalization, you might even achieve this mindset as a resolution of the fury and despair just mentioned.

Phase Two: Happily Splashing About

Now that you’re committed, it’s time to get oriented. Of course, in ideal circumstances, you’d have done some research beforehand, calculating expenses for parts and tools you don’t already own, estimating the time required, etc. But circumstances are rarely ideal, and human beings aren’t perfectly logical and systematic.

Now, still full of determination, you begin taking stuff apart. Maybe you’ve got some written guidance, maybe you heard how, or maybe you’re winging it, sure that you can put everything back together by simply reversing the disassembly process. At first, you’re impeccably organized, placing fasteners in labeled trays and snapping shots on your digital camera for later reference. You’re calm and focused. This is pretty interesting, huh?

Ohhh… that’s how it works! Handling the actual guts of a mechanism makes crystal clear what you understood only vaguely before. You feel competent, enthused, and smart. Not just because of what you’re learning, but because you made the right decision to tackle this job yourself. As your excitement builds, you start letting things slide. No need to label those pieces; you’ll remember where they came from. Just skim this section of instructions; you know what it’ll say. Don’t bother with that photo; no way you’d forget the beveled side faces outward…

Phase Three: Sinking

In rare cases, this phase doesn’t occur. But most of the time, storm clouds eventually roll in and create troubled waters. You were sure you’d gotten that dial caliper back, but now you can’t find it, or even remember who borrowed it, and—surprise!—those shims aren’t stamped. Or, the instructions say to plug tab A into slot B, but the picture only has the former labeled; there’s no “B” on there to show which of the nine available slots they mean. If only you’d taken that photo during disassembly! The shop just closed, and they’ve stopped answering their phone. Or, when you removed that cover, you didn’t expect all those tiny pieces to tumble out before you could notice their positions, including the spring that went flying out into the grass. It’s Saturday evening and you’re supposed to start that big trip tomorrow morning—Doh!!

Such setbacks cause short delays and modest additional expenses; you have to run out for stuff you didn’t know you’d need. Or worse, that plastic part was anchored in place by a hidden clip, And, you thought it just needed a bit more “persuasion.” Now you’ll have to order a replacement and wait a week. Small frustrations and regrets like these aren’t really Phase Three phenomena.

There has to be violent gut churning in response to some horrifying realization: Something like the only place that screw could have gone is down into the cam chain tunnel. Or this “leftover” piece was part of step two; now all 37 subsequent steps must be undone and redone (with yet another set of new gaskets). That torque spec was 4.0 ft-lbs, not 40 ft-lbs; no wonder it suddenly turned so freely! Or everything is back together perfectly, triple-checked, but it doesn’t even begin to work. (Hint: find that beveled piece mentioned earlier.)

You curse the machine. You curse the instructions. You curse yourself for not being more careful, or for not reading ahead in the manual, or for overestimating your abilities. You stomp around the yard, or fold up in despair. Your previously confident optimism now stinks of hubris; this is your punishment. Fixing your mistake now seems likely to cost more than the shop’s original quote. You’ll have to haul your mess there now on the trailer of shame.

You can’t problem-solve in this state of mind: your thoughts race or go blank. Maybe you start frantically undoing everything, compounding the chaos, but at least you’re doing something.

Phase Four: Resurfacing

All storms eventually pass. Whether you deliberately take a break or just exhaust yourself, your mental circuits reset. With rest and less emotional turbulence, you realize something you couldn’t during the tempest. That scrap metal could serve as the needed tool if bent a little. Wait, didn’t someone on the TDR’s web forum mention this exact dilemma? With the trip plans shot, it’s not such a big deal to take everything apart again…

Rescue can come from elsewhere, but you’re usually able to swim to shore on your own, once you’ve settled down. Effective efforts pause the work and target your distress. A spouse’s soothing or the distraction of a game save far more time than your dogged perseverance. Maybe there’s no cleverly inexpensive solution, only a fresh perspective that lets progress resume.

Phase Five: Recovering

With the crisis over and problem solved, you finish with a sober wisdom unattainable any other way. Humbled by your error, or at least your limitations, you button everything up using the calmly methodical approach with which you began. Paradoxically, this humility is accompanied by pride in the ultimate accomplishment of your goal, and increased confidence going forward. You truly do know more now—not just about the procedures completed, but also the self-discipline and care required for success. You vow to do better next time. (Perhaps you actually will.)

Regret and self-reproach fade, replaced by the satisfaction of having survived—and even emerged triumphant against the odds. Victory is that much sweeter for having been hard-won. The extra stress, expense and time involved get redefined as worthwhile tuition in the school of hard knocks. The whole experience takes on a positive aura, if only because it makes an epic tale. This may be every bit as much a rationalization as what got you started, but it feels infinitely better than the alternative view—that you were just foolish and this was all a huge, unnecessary waste.

Mark Barnes, Ph.D.
TDR Writer

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