High Voltage Learning

August 19, 2018 | Aubrey Wiete | HCI
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As a kid, I was giddy about learning new skills. I played soccer, softball, basketball, and joined track and field. I took courses in Spanish, sign language, French, and Latin. I participated in a pottery painting workshop, took singing lessons, and joined plays and musical theater productions. Reading that list makes me tired now, but I don’t remember feeling that way. What I remember is the excitement about learning something new and different, the possibility of what could be.

What happened to my innate enthusiasm for learning? The older I get, the harder it seems to muster up energy to commit to creative and new endeavors. I get too complacent in my comfort zone, tempted by the ease of routine and modern conveniences. How many of us have dodged a task on our to-do list and instead decided to binge watch a series on Netflix? But as they say, necessity is the mother of all invention (or in my case, a combination of frugality and stubbornness).

Eight weeks ago, my family and I moved. Our new house is charming and quaint, but it has some quirks, and enough age and history that we want to make our own. We’ve painted a lot, we’ve sanded a lot, and now that we’ve moved in, replacing all the antiquated, yellow-ivory hued outlets and switches with modern, crisp, clean and white ones is a priority. The only problem is I’m far too stingy to pay an electrician to replace these and yet, I’ve never done electrical work. I can paint trim all day (no, really, I did that for like a week straight) but electric is something I know nothing about, other than it has a high chance of electrocution if you’re not careful.

Oy. What to do. 

Candidly, my obstinate nature came in handy for this because once I decided that I could do this, there was little anyone could say or do to get in my way. After a few trips to Home Depot and an hour of impatiently watching YouTube tutorials, I got down to business. I shut off the breaker, double checked it with a multimeter, and started unscrewing the plates and wires attached to the wall. Several (frustrating) minutes later, it was time.

The basement floor was cold under my bare feet as I walked to the back corner of the room. My flashlight illuminated the breaker box panel. I took a deep breath, flipped the breaker switch, and scurried back upstairs.

“It’s the moment of truth,” I declared to my husband. I walked to the outlet I’d just installed and plugged in the trusty lamp I’d designated as my go-to circuit tester.

Click. Light! I broke out a well-justified happy dance. “I did it, I did it! And now I’m going to replace ALL of these in the house,” I exclaimed.  “Electric is fun!”

Fast-forward a few weeks, and I am almost done with my task. In the process, I’ve learned how to identify hot wires, ground wires, and neutrals, and I’ve gotten even more intimately familiar with the electrical aisle at Home Depot.

But, I was a little shortsighted in my exclamation – it hasn’t all been fun. I’ve gotten mildly shocked, frustrated at having to splice wires and squish things into boxes, and overwhelmed with the number of switches, outlets, plates, screws, and wires I’ve had to keep track of. The icing on the cake was when I went to reattach an outlet and the entire electrical box collapsed inside the wall. Time to break out the drywall saw and plaster…

And yet, when I walk in my house and see all the bright, sharp white plates and switches, I swell with pride. They are such small details, ones that might be easily overlooked, but they speak volumes to me about what I am capable of learning and doing.

As children, our job is to learn. We expose ourselves to new experiences, new skills, and new capabilities. We flourish and fail, but the important point is that we keep going. As adults, maintaining that momentum can be difficult, daunting and downright impossible at times. But we need to treat learning like Newton’s law of inertia: once you get going, you keep going. After all, I just might have convinced myself to start a bathroom renovation.

As a new, so-called amateur electrician, I encourage you to dive in and learn. I’ll still be busy splicing wires and (hopefully) doing happy dances when my lights and fans and outlets work, but I’ll be cheering you on all the same.