Uncomfortable Tools

The picture is the place I began learning how to paint.

It was called the North Salem Gallery and it was run by a wonderful abstract artist named Ruth Sauer. She was a little bird like woman with grizzled gray hair and a ready smile. On the side, she taught art, mostly to the kids in town, but she took on a couple of us adult types, I was in my late fifties.

Once a week we’d go to her studio. She had a folding table in the middle of things and we’d paint. People would come to the Gallery while we were there, and she would talk with them, talk about the artists, the work on the walls, and even what we, rank beginners as we were, were doing. I probably learned more about art listening to her than I did in our class.

Ruth was a real believer in giving people the basics, the absolute basics, and then turning them loose. Let them experiment. She never critiqued what I did. Instead she asked questions about WHY I was doing what I did. What did I have in mind? Why did I make this choice or that choice? How did this tool or that tool feel when I used it. Why. Why. Why.

When I stumbled on this picture early this morning, what struck me is how many of the tools in the table I still have and still use. The wooden boxes in the picture still hold my watercolors, though the mix of paint has changed. I still have a few favorite brushes, that I use with regularity. Whatever that stuff is that lies underneath my paintings, I still put underneath my paintings to absorb water and paint overflow and such.

Come to my studio now, and you’ll see a lot of other things too. I paint with oils as much as watercolor now. I use canvas. New brushes. I experiment with new styles. At times now, I paint abstract art on furniture or (my favorite) lights.

Eventually, you get comfortable with a set of tools. But one of life’s lessons is that just because you get comfortable with a tool, does not mean it is the best tool. And that carries on beyond the studio to life and work.

I hve a lot of tools. Some of them are for my art. Some for my writing. Some for my pastoring. Some for fixing things around the house. I have a ton of software tools that I use. Every now and again. I wonder if I am too stuck in what I am doing, and I try new tools. Most of the time, I come back to the old ones. Now and again, I stick with the new ones.

It’s not easy, taking on a new tool. I am doing that right now, as I work on a software took that will, I hope, streamline my coaching/teaching work. It is new, and complicated to set up. The syntax and user interface is foreign (literally. The platform was developed in India and Britain). I feel terribly uncomfortable developing the business processes that will be part and parcel of this new way to work. I feel stupid sometimes.

I hate feeling stupid.

But, I have to remind myself that what is important is what works. I think we lose sight of that sometimes. We use our familiar tools, and because they are familiar, we tend to convince ourselves that it is the best tool. But comfort is not the measure of a good tool.

How well it works is the measure.

It takes a bit of self honesty to say, “this doesn’t work anymore.” or even “I could do this so much better if I took on a new way of doing things.” Because that self honesty means admitting WE aren’t working as well as we should or could. It means admitting we have to change. And it means having to put ourselves into a place where we are not the expert, not on top of things, where we are vulnerable and feel stupid.

Where we have to go to people who do know, be they counselors, therapists, experts, our competitors, pastors, others who are successful, and say “teach me.” Ideally, those people give us their help in the same way Ruth Sauer did for me as I learned to paint, with patience, no judgment, and still able to guide, only when needed. Giving us the freedom to be who we are as we learn how to be what we want to become.

How well do your tools work? Are they moving you noticeably towards who and what you want to be? Spend some time being honest with yourself, and gather up the courage to do it differently if that is what is needed. Make it work by not doing the same old thing.

It will be uncomfortable for a while. But as you see the change happening, feel the growth, you will be glad you did.

Because it works.

Be well. Travel wisely,

Tom

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