But I Repeat Myself

But I Repeat Myself

1.

I started knitting a hat last month. It wasn’t a complicated pattern, but it involved cable stitches, and it was my first time knitting from a chart, and I knew—I knew—that, sooner or later, I was going to make a mistake. Bingo: twenty rows in, I looked back at my work and realized that I’d shifted the design by a single stitch—not once, but twice. Instead of neatly snaking cables running up the hat, the pattern looked like it had glitched. I sighed, unraveled my work, and started over.

2.

Every year at Christmas, I make peanut butter fudge. It’s a longstanding family tradition from a longstanding family recipe, which I’ve probably executed without fail at least fifty times. But for whatever reason, this year, I could not get the fudge to set. I’d boil the sugar and butter and milk, stir it into the fluff and peanut butter, pour it into the buttered pan—but twenty-four hours later, you could still eat it with a spoon.

Delicious as it was, it wasn’t fudge. And it wasn’t fudge the second time I tried. And it wasn’t fudge the third time I tried, either. I sighed, scraped the third batch into the trash, and started again.

3.

When I audit websites, I use a template that I’ve refined (and that I continue to refine) over years of practice. My preferred method employs color-coding to identify page hierarchies: pages at the top level are highlighted orange; pages at the second level, marigold; third level, yellow; and so on, in rainbow progression:

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet showing eight levels of color-coded outline hierarchy

This isn’t because bright colors gussy up a boring ol’ spreadsheet (though they do!), but because it’s helpful to tell, at a glance, how deeply buried a page is, and to rely on a familiar mental model (a warm-to-cool spectrum) as the key.

But this key only works for pages that follow the expected navigational structure, and plenty—brace yourself, this will come as quite a shock, I am certain—don’t. So for those misbehaving pages (crosslinks, pages with unknown placement, and pages that are only accessible from inline links) I use colors that break the rainbow: gray, burgundy, aqua, etc.:

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet showing different colored rows with no discernible color meaning.

This month, as I’ve worked on a structural audit for a higher ed client, I realized that my template wasn’t working as well for me as I thought. The aqua I was using to demarcate inline links was excellent for calling attention to those pages, but terribly distracting for assessing the overall structure of a particular section.

I was two-thousand entries in when I realized this.

So, naturally, I changed the template. Instead of using color (a marker of hierarchy) to flag structural disruptions, I chose other signifiers, like asterisks and italics. Differentiating my visual markers was crucial to differentiating the meaning of my data—even if it meant I had to comb through two-thousand spreadsheet lines to identify and alter the formatting. Even if it meant doing something that felt like starting over.

4.

I don’t tell these stories to illustrate how inept 2017 apparently made me (although, of course it did). I tell them because, well, they all happened at roughly the same time in December, and I get a kick out of thematic consistency in real life.

At first, when you line these stories up, they sound like a scripted lesson in practice makes perfect. I should see these forced do-overs as opportunities to hone my various crafts! And that’s true enough: having to repeat the first twenty rows of my hat helped me better read the chart, and taught me what to look for in my cables as I went along, in a way that my first attempt had not.

And each failed attempt at the peanut butter fudge allowed me to experiment and ask questions—does more butter help? Does using 2% milk instead of whole make a difference?—that contributed to my (still weak!) understanding of food science.

And, certainly, continuing to refine my audit template will make me a better practitioner and improve my future audits:

Screenshot of an Excel spreadsheet showing colors that reflect the outline hierarchy.

The takeaway that means more to me, however, is not that repetition enhances skill, but that repetition is intrinsic to the process.

I don’t want to think of these moments as “messing up and starting over,” as I usually contextualize them. Instead, I want to think of them as simply continuing the work.

The work sometimes involves tedium, drudgery, and, yes, repetition. But if we expect it from the beginning—if we acknowledge that retracing our steps is part and parcel to the project—then we move from redundancy to iteration.

So repetition becomes simply another step—the next step. Seen that way, there isn’t really any repetition at all.

5.

When I began knitting a new scarf this week, I went into it knowing I would, at some point, frog my work and try again. Rather than fearing it—oh, god, what if I mess up and have to start over?—I saw it as part of the routine. So when I did undo my first ten rows, it wasn’t with a groan, but with a renewed sense of patience.

That patience won’t last me long—surprise, it’s not one of my better-expressed character traits—but it’s a start. As we kick off 2018, I worry that it is going to feel repetitive. I can sense in myself and in others a feeling of futility—that no matter what we do, there is always more work, there is always something trying to unravel our progress and send us back to the beginning. Because there is.

Progress doesn’t come from flawless execution, but from multiple attempts, multiple starts, multiple efforts. I’ll try to hold on to that. Because sometimes, the peanut butter fudge is gonna be a mess. But insisting on making that fourth batch—the one that finally sets—despite the frustration? That’s an attitude to take into the new year.

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