I Could Never Do That! (On Knitting + Growth)

My daughter has practiced Tae Kwon Do for five years now.  She is twelve years old and a black belt.  She's a slip of a thing with a sensitive heart.  I love taking her to class because when she steps onto the mat, she transforms from a moody tween into a confident and capable young woman.  She can talk big and back it up but she always shows excellent sportsmanship.  

As proud as I am of her, I tell her regularly that the kids who start out as white belts in the teen class deserve so. much. respect.  They are brave.  Can you imagine walking onto the mat with a bunch of high-ranking belts and you're just starting?  To make it more difficult: you're thirteen years old and already awkward as heck growing into a teenaged body that changes every day.

These kids are learning one of the most amazing meta-lessons they can learn in life: how to move past the discomfort of being a beginner.


“It's almost like there's a grammar of success. When you learn to use that grammar to learn one language, you can also apply the same techniques to be a success in new areas.”

—James Altucher, Reinvent Yourself

I've reflected on this lately as most of my big projects have involved learning some new knitting skill.  I've learned brioche stitch, stranded color work, and how to fade.  I even entered my Cardamom Coffee Hat (by Caitlin Hunter @boylandknitworks) into the "New To You Make A Long" on Ravelry & Instagram (that’s the project I’ve peppered pictures of throughout this post. More on the project below.)

As I worked on the hat, I found myself laughing a lot as I tried out various ways of managing two yarns at once.  I am an English knitter (meaning I "throw" the yarn over the needle with my right hand) and so I started by placing both yarns over my right index finger.  Then I tried separating the yarns over two fingers in the right hand. Then I tried holding one yarn in my left hand, Continental Style.  Then I got some Norwegian Knitting Thimbles.  I tried using one or two, on various fingers, both right and left.  (I dumped those fast.)  Sometimes, when I would get frustrated, I'd just pick up and drop the yarn and knit with one at a time...which is rather inefficient.  I eventually settled on a mix of English & Continental, holding one yarn over the right index finger and one over the left.  And I still had to play around with how to wrap the yarn through my left fingers to get the tension right. 

Right.  I'm exhausted now. 

The point is, this skill is a work in progress.  I've been knitting for twelve years and I made this whole dang hat struggling with tension like I did on my first project.  

It was delightful. 

Carol Dweck calls it "growth mindset:" the quality of believing that your abilities are attributes you can develop, that you are what you make of yourself, and not defined by a fixed set of traits you happened to be handed at birth.  And to live with a growth mindset means accepting a new challenges with perfect confidence that you can learn the new skill to the level you choose.


With a growth mindset, you will "love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning."

—Carol Dweck, Mindset

I really want to have this talk with everyone who tells me as I knit in public: "Wow, you're so talented!  I could never do that."  I hear this all the time.   But this ain't talent, honey.  Not really.  It's just a skill I picked up and practiced.  Yes, my work looks more polished than a beginner's.  Want to look at my first project?  I'll show you; I keep the pictures.  You'll see how far I've come.  Which is all to say, you could totally do this, too.

Being a beginner takes practice, especially for adults.  (Read that again.)   Once you've allowed yourself that discomfort a few times, you get used to it.  You know it's something you'll move past, and you've learned how.  You can even come to enjoy beginnings, because they're exciting. 

The opposite of growth mindset is a "fixed mindset:" the belief that we are the sum of the talents we were given at birth and that the only way to succeed is to prove how talented we are at what we already know and to avoid situations that reveal what we aren't naturally good at.


“…people who believe in fixed traits feel an urgency to succeed, and when they do, they may feel more than pride. They may feel a sense of superiority, since success means that their fixed traits are better than other people’s. However, lurking behind that self-esteem of the fixed mindset is a simple question: If you’re somebody when you’re successful, what are you when you’re unsuccessful?”

—Carol Dweck, Mindset

This is why it is often suggested to avoid giving children "fixed trait" compliments, like "you're so smart," or "you're so pretty."  What happens when they (inevitably) do something stupid or (gasp) get a wrinkle?  Smart and pretty become definitions we have to hustle to live up to.  But no one can be smart and pretty all the time.  A "growth" compliment focuses on effort and attitude, which will take us far and can be used by anyone, at any time.

In a recent meeting of my daughter's Girl Scout troop, we were deciding on a badge to work on.  And I was surprised to hear these young girls saying, "I don't want to do that badge. I'm not good at that."  Wait, what?  Since when is a Girl Scout badge for proving what you already know?  And you're just a kid, how do you know what you're good at?    (I wouldn't let that fly.  Public Speaking Badge it is.)  

I hear knitters and would-be knitters saying these things all the time, too.  Sometimes, we really are afraid to try something new, even if it's just ... knitting.  But one of the great things about knitting is that, in the scheme of things, who cares what your knitting looks like?  It's just knitting.  You don't have to show it off on Instagram and Ravelry or to your mother-in-law if you don't want to.  Really, most of us knit because we enjoy it.  Why worry about criticism?  I've honestly never heard any criticism of anyone's knitting.  Trust me, my Cardamom Coffee hat has uneven stitches all over.  No one has made fun of me, and I'm wearing it all the time.  My next colorwork project will look better.


Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element to developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.”

Gretchen Rubin, The Happiness Project

{For what it's worth, a tangent from my soap box:  "skills" and "talents" aren't just limited to school subjects and hobbies, activities that are more concrete like knitting, painting, doing layups, or calculus.  Listening, remembering birthdays, developing logical arguments, positivity, getting places on time, knowing which way is north, actually bringing your shopping list to the grocery store, anticipating peoples' needs, convincing people that punctuality is overrated, remembering what you need at the store without a list, making new friends feel welcome at parties, knowing when to nod and smile in a conversation even though you've tuned out, remembering to clean out your kid's Wednesday folder every week, intuiting when someone is lying, finding stuff your kids lost, making new friends or organized shopping lists in the first place... these are really cool gifts.  To all the people I've heard say they have no talents (and I'm forever gobsmacked by how many people say that,) you just haven't looked at yourself with clarity.  Yet.  You are probably really good at things you don't even categorize as "things people can be good at" because they come so naturally to you.  But to the rest of us, you're clearly gifted.

As for the rest of it, you can learn it.  I'm a firm believer that we can learn anything well enough to be worth doing, but that we can't learn everything, so it's not a question of "can I?", but instead a question of, "is this worth investing in?"}


"Intelligence isn't having all the answers. Intelligence is the capacity to learn what you don't know. The sweaters I knit remind me of this. They remind me that life is too short to stand outside the window of the tap dancing studio saying, I wish I could do that."

—Bernadette Murphy, Zen and the Art of Knitting

About the hat featured here: It’s the Cardamom Coffee Hat by Caitlin Hunter, knit in three types of Madeline Tosh sock yarns:

  • MC: Tosh Sock in Glazed Pecan

  • CC1: Twist Light in Gentle Monster

  • CC2: Euro Sock in Venti Dragon Mocha

It is a great choice for a first colorwork project. It’s small enough that you can use leftover yarn, so it’s not a big financial investment. There are three colors, but only two in use at any time, so it keeps it simple as possible. And the shape is great—it’s well-suited for a big pom, but I decided to do without.

I have been eyeing Caitlin Hunter’s patterns for a while now, but most of them involve colorwork, so they have been out of reach, tantalizing me! I knew I could learn stranded knitting, but I waited to find the right opportunity to sit down with someone to help me get started. Turns out, I LOVED knitting this. Like learning brioche, colorwork required enough of my attention to make the knitting itself an activity, not just something to occupy my hands. And watching the pattern build—talk about “just one more row” syndrome!

I will definitely knit this pattern again. It’ll make a fabulous gift! I can tell that my tension improved as I went along; I think I will continue to take on smaller colorwork projects for now before I tackle a larger project, like the Sipila Sweater! (Don’t burst my bubble and remind me that I live in Texas and I probably won’t get to wear it much…)

What are your favorite small colorwork projects? I need more to add to my queue!