Learning by Doing: Life Lessons from the Hobby Shop

May 5, 2017

- By MJ Lee - After I moved to the United States and left my family, friends, and life in my home country behind, I had to adapt to my new surroundings and environment. Not only I had to learn how to rent an apartment, how to pay the bills, and where to do grocery shopping, but also how to manage my life without working or going to school. My whole life I’ve had some sort of title determined by my school or work place which allowed me to understand myself and to introduce myself to others. So it was very strange to live without sense of belonging.

The first week of semester I went to an orientation dinner and met members of MIT Spouses & Partners Connect (MS&PC). When I was approaching them, I kept thinking what I should say to them. Despite my worries, they welcomed me first and introduced themselves. Since the warmest first meeting with MS&PC, I started calling them as ‘my group’ and met a lot of wonderful friends through participation in this group. I can definitely say this was a good start of my life here.

Beginning of the big project

Since I had some free time on my hands, I decided to broaden my experience in Boston by learning something new. Hobby shop caught my eye during the campus tour led by MS&PC. Woodworking has been one of my fantasies, so it was a perfect timing to try it.

As I was starting woodworking, I was very surprised how woodworking and settling in US are alike. Starting as a rankest novice was not easy as you can imagine. First of all, I was not able to speak the professional language. Unfamiliar tools names, different measuring system, poor knowledge of wood types, a lack of information about the place where I can buy the materials, and, of course, woodworking techniques that never heard of, were making me confused and frustrated pretty often. That was exactly the same feeling that I experienced when I just arrived to the US: banking, medical, housing, and transportation system - everything was unfamiliar. Also, I had to adapt to American culture.

It took me some time and a lot of nerves to get used to woodworking and, by all means, to life in America, but, as you see, it was not impossible. In order to learn something new, I, most importantly, worked up my courage, but I also did my homework to understand measuring units, tools names, safety rules and woodworking techniques, that allowed me to communicate with the people working in the hobby shop confidently.

Setting the feasible goals

When I showed my ambitious design of the first project to seek the hobby shop staff’s opinion, I was told I should simplify it because there was no way to build a furniture with such a complicated design for the beginner. When I heard that, I felt they were underestimating me. However, I am so glad I listened to this advice and changed my design. It was actually me, who totally underestimated the challenge, considering it took me 5 months to finish the modified design! If I didn’t do it, I might give up the project being full of frustration. So, if you really would like to start something new - start by setting simple goals. Same applies to settling in the US. You don’t have to set high expectations and then feel bad about yourself when they are not met. You don’t have to be focused on immediately achieving your ultimate goal such as speaking perfect English or getting a dream job here. Expanding your comfort zone little by little is just enough as long as you are going forward. You will find the beauty of nailing every milestone if you stay patient.

Experiencing drawbacks

As I learn I’m becoming more independent and confident in what I am doing. However, this confidence doesn’t last long because some unexpected things always happen. The walls that I put together were warping due to the nature of wood. I did not know how to fix them, and it seemed my project was doomed. However, I tried to fix it with staff’s help: I moistened all my pieces and dried them by pressing against the table with straight scrap woods. People at the hobby shop including myself were uncertain about the result... but it worked! It was not the only incident by the way, many times when I cut, glued, or assembled the pieces, I had different problems.

Yes, things always happen. We have been through many misfortunes after we got to the US. Lost passport (this was huge), stolen bike, motor scooter accident, getting damaged items from the delivery, having an error in rent payment system, etc. We contacted police for the first time in our lives twice in the first 3 months here, and we had to patiently call numerous times to fix our problems. What I’ve learned from this - it’s better to move on as soon as things happen and just accept the consequences. Even if I don’t get the best results and things are not perfect, I consider that that’s the best I can get cause I tried my best. And sometimes, you can make things even better by making a mistake. When I was making the juice groove on my cutting board, I could not control the router machine at first, and it went the wrong way. But I saw some potential in that, tried to make a different shape of the groove, and it worked!

Keep trying to go out of your comfort zone

When you experience problems repeatedly (whether you found solution for them or not), you lose confidence and start avoiding doing things because you fear that you’ll encounter difficulties again. I had to assemble my relatively flattened four wooden pieces together, but then I said to the hobby shop employee: “I am so nervous. Whenever I glued things I couldn’t do it nicely at once. I’m worried that I’m going to screw up again this time. I just don’t want to assemble them right now.” The man said to me: “I don't get it. Why are you so nervous? You’ve done things nicely so far.” It seemed he didn’t consider the drawbacks that I’ve had as a lack of skills or talent but rather as inevitable elements of the process of woodworking. After this conversation, I decided to proceed with the project. The angles went off slightly and it caused 1/16 inches error in lengths but instead of being depressed about this little error, I quickly moved on and found a good solution – I filled the gaps with scrap woods!

I hesitated before taking every step and was afraid of failure or any kind of unexpected problems in the real world as well. Remaining in your comfort zone and not doing anything new and scary is a very sweet temptation but it is important that we never stop learning to proceed to the next level. I’m trying new things and naturally I go through challenges and make mistakes but now I feel more comfortable about it because I am getting experience and acquiring more resources, such as my dearest friends, who help me to achieve a breakthrough with their warm support.


It can be overwhelming sometimes when you live in foreign country, so it’s natural to tend to stay in your comfort zone. However, if you think it’s time to break out of it, you should take action. You will learn by doing more than you thought was possible.