By Chloe Burns, Tallgrass Network youth outreach coordinator
Let's just come out and say it: Ranch work, as it turns out, is bananas complicated. If you're fairly new to it like I am, you're probably somewhere in the "wait-a-minute-I-thought-we-were-throwing-hay-bales-all-day-why-are-you-handing-me-that-drill" place. And, if you're also like me and have no background in power tools, machine parts, or other infrastructure technologies, you're probably feeling pretty out of place most of the time.
That's why I've created a helpful guide, pulling from my own experience in not knowing what the @#%$ I'm doing on any given day.
Lesson One: Stay Calm
Before this particular moment, I had drilled only once in my life. I had drilled two screws straight into a wall to hang a piece of art. And no, I wasn't 100% sure I was doing it right then, either. So fast forward to when Scott, a friend of mine who was working with me at the farm, handed me the drill to build a new shelving unit in the barn, and we see a pretty distinct look of fear in my eyes. He was holding the shelf up to the wall, I was holding the drill, and there wasn't a ton of room for us to shift around because I was too intimidated to use it. So I put the screw up to the wood and started drilling.
And I @#%$ing sucked.
The screw wouldn't go into the wood, which was confusing because I'd always been under the impression that that was what the stupid drill was for in the first place.
I pushed harder on the drill, which was apparently a mistake because the screw bounced away and the drill made a horrible wrenching sound.
I put the screw back up and attempted to drill it again, all while my poor fellow worker was still standing underneath this shelf.
I probably should have given him the drill so we could just get it over with, but now the drill had wronged me. I was determined to show my mastery over this machine. So I put the screw back up, I slowed down my drill and pushed harder into the head of the screw, and after a couple of god-awful slips and groaning noises, that little mother-@#%$er went in. Look who's the boss now.
For most of that project, I was the one holding the drill. And would you believe it, I actually got a bit better at using it. It wasn't really "fun" in the strictest sense, nor was I particularly "confident" or "happy to be using it," but we all ended in one piece and I expanded my skill set.
Which is why my first lesson is to stay calm in the face of what you don't know. Not just because you want to come off as totally chill to all of your more experienced comrades, but also because if you're not thinking clearly, you're more than likely just going to @#%$ more sh*t up. Take a deep breath, focus on what you're doing, and you might even end up doing it right.
That being said...
Lesson Two: Admit The Sh*t You Don't Know
I didn't particularly want to be handed the circular hand saw. I had seen them used, and I had also seen the bandaged thumbs from the times when using them did not go quite so well. Throw in the fact that I was surrounded by men who all assumed I knew what I was doing (an assumption I appreciated, but that turned out to be vastly incorrect), and I saw a severed limb and an ambulance in my near future, along with the prodding "Why didn't you tell us you'd never used one before?!"
So, after Scott gave me the saw and started to walk away, I held it up and said, "Yeah I don't know how to use this."
A part of me was hoping he would nod and take the saw from me so I could just leave. But instead, he showed me how to position it, how to line it up with the mark on the wood, and how you actually have to press this button and this button at the same time to get it to work.
Then, I sawed the piece of wood. Just like that. It was the easiest thing I'd done all day, and when I gave it back to him and it had been done properly, I felt the need to toss the hand saw in the grass and yell "Who's the man?!" even though I am, in fact, not a man.
Being afraid of what you don't know, or not wanting to reveal to others that you don't know it, is probably the easiest way for someone to get hurt when you're dealing with dangerous things. Had Scott handed me a paintbrush and said "give me a turkey," I probably could've stayed quiet and figured it out along the way. But the fact of the matter is that you don't know what you don't know, and when that lack of knowledge can result in serious injury (and the further embarrassment that would accompany it), you're better off just to ask and get it right the first time.
Lesson Three: Own The Sh*t You Don't Know
Let's just say it: I'm a girl. No, that doesn't mean that I'm going to be inherently bad at running a chainsaw. I'm not a geneticist, but I'm fairly certain there's not a "power tool gene" that's exclusively linked to the Y-chromosome. What being a girl means to a social scientist, however, is that no one ever assumed I was going to need to learn how to run anything like a drill or a saw, or learn to change the oil on a vehicle or learn the different names for all of the wrenches and bolts and screwdrivers.
Now, to be fair, there are other things at play here. I also grew up in an environment where I wasn't expected to do any of the above chores. And it's not like I was begging to learn how to change oil, because guess what, it @#%$ing sucks.
But all of these factors are related, and they all mean that when it comes to building a shelf or fixing an ATV, I truly, honestly, don't know sh*t.
And that's okay.
I don't know what it is, but there's something about not knowing how to do everything that makes us anxious. And as calm as I seem about it, it can be difficult to go to work every day knowing that I'm going to encounter any number of things I've never laid a hand on while everyone else uses them with ease. But I force myself to step away from the self-hate and blaming game, because as I said before, I never had a reason to learn how to hang a gate. I never had a reason to learn how to drive a stick shift or tighten a chain on a chainsaw or learn what the @#%$ a socket wrench was. So guess what? I don't know how to do any of those things. And I refuse to apologize for that.
Instead, I try to say thank you.
This bit of advice comes from a comic I once saw that described how we can be more positive in the language we use on a day to day basis. I know we ranchers don't tend to be into all of this emotional self-love stuff, but I can tell you from experience that there is a difference when you end a day having spent it saying "I'm sorry I'm so bad at this" and one where you spent it saying "thank you for showing me."
But if you're not super into that method, or if thanking someone doesn't always fit the situation, there are still other ways to own what you're not good at. I will have you know that just the other day, I confidently welded a broken gate like a badass. And then, as soon as we brought it out to the pasture to hang it, that weld popped right the @#%$ off.
So I fixed the problem with wire, asked Scott what he thought the problem was, and concluded that I needed more practice at my craft. (It turned out to be an issue with the welder, but I didn't know this at the time.) I had only just learned to weld a few weeks before this happened, and all of that had been under fairly close supervision, so no one should've been surprised that it wasn't going to go perfectly every time.
"I just need more practice."
"I'll get it one of these days."
"What do you think I need to be doing differently?"
"Thanks for all of your help."
No, you don't know everything. It's not a reflection on your character or your worth; it's a fact of life. So own it.
But when all else fails...
Lesson Four: Cussing Helps
Did you know that chainsaws have an on-off switch?
I did at one point. But then, I forgot.
So when I went to rev up the chainsaw and it wouldn't go, I started to panic. What could I possibly be doing wrong? Am I not strong enough? Is it missing a part? Do chainsaws have detachable parts?
Thank god Scott turned around and thought to ask, "Is it switched on?"
Because then I remembered that the switch existed, and as soon as I flipped it, that little saw started right up.
"Well @#%$," I said.
Newsflash: We do some stupid sh*t as human beings. We're bad at things, we make mistakes, and sometimes we just feel plain sh*tty. And that's when the @#%$'s come out.
Children, sometimes it's okay to cuss. I am a firm believer in the notion that cussing is, in fact, what makes the world go round. Because you're not hurting anyone; it's not like the f-bomb is an actual bomb that can create mass devastation from its mere utterance. If anything, it can blast away your insecurities and release that tension you've been holding in your chest since you accidentally stepped in dog sh*t this morning.
So when you don't know sh*t, just cuss. Laugh about it, call yourself an idiot, and move on. And then go home to write a passive-aggressive blog post about it. There's danger in taking anything too seriously.
Lesson Five: Do Some Sh*t You Know
I'm not a machine person. I will never be a machine person.
What I am, however, is an animal person.
I've been riding horses since before I could walk. I've been bucked off, dragged around, kicked, bitten, and left in the dust. And I don't even know everything there is to know about horses, but when I get in the saddle at the end of a long day doing things I suck at, the insecurities and stress both fall away. When tacking up comes so naturally to me that I have to stop and think about it to explain it to someone else - say Scott, for example - I feel like a whole person again. And when I look back and have to give him tips on how to get my stubborn horses to plod on, I'm reminded of the fact that everything has a learning curve.
I'll say it again; we don't know everything. But we know some things. All of this time we've spent alive hasn't been spent in an empty room staring at the wall. And if it has, you're probably damn good at staring at a wall. So when you've spent all day @#%$ing up sh*t because you don't know it, spend some time that evening doing something you do know. Write, paint, play the piano, go get bucked off of your horse. You have no idea how mind-clearing a good, familiar fall in the dirt can be.
And then go to work the next day ready to warn everyone: "I don't know sh*t."