Long before Pinterest, which seems to have become the ultimate repository of DIY dreams, I was cursed with the insatiable desire to surround myself with beautiful and interesting things and to announce proudly to the world that “I did it myself.” This urge to emulate the creations and achievements of others extends even beyond the realm of tactile objects to skills and feats as well. When I visit a museum, I can’t help but think, “I will return next week and copy the masters!” When I discover that someone has written a poem a day for a year, I think, “What a great idea! I should do it too!”
This impulse has resulted in a number of false starts. I seem to recall joining one of those 356 groups on Flickr and subsequently following through for about three of 356 days. After reading Eat, Pray, Love, I bought an “Easy Italian Reader” and a yoga mat, both of which have seen embarrassingly little use since their addition to my collection of very-useful-yet-unused self-improvement tools.
I know I’m not the only one. Tutorials, how-tos, and advice columns make up some of the most popular information on the internet. We want to know, in 500 words or less, how to build our own websites, sweep own our hair up into classy side chignons, and paint striking works of modern art for our homes.
Don’t get me wrong—I love reading this stuff, and I love writing it too. I am a strong advocate for homemade food and handmade things and tools for self-improvement. But I often find that I don’t give enough consideration to the “yourself” aspect of DIY inspiration. I so easily forget to account for where I'm starting from. I see a hair tutorial and try to ignore the fact that my hair is the frizzy, chaotic alter ego of the long, silky locks in the photo. I see “Easy Italian Reader” and realize much later that I still can’t read it if my Italian vocabulary is limited to food terms.
This is not to say that we should all abandon our DIY dreams and leave the doing and creating and achieving to the experts and professionals. There’s certainly nothing wrong with gathering inspiration from the creations and achievements and adventures of others. But if I hope to cultivate motivation from the things that inspire me, rather than disappointment at my failure to replicate them, perhaps a bit more self-reflection is in order.
The DIY illusion is not the idea that we can do things ourselves. Every piece of inspiration we encounter broadens our sense of what’s possible. There’s certainly room in this world for more faith in what each of us is capable of. The illusion to be wary of, however, is that we can do new and unfamiliar things quickly and effortlessly, if only we had the right tools or the time to watch a five-minute instructional video.
So the next time I file away a glamorous photo or add a new how-to book to my wishlist, I hope to take some time to differentiate between inspiration and aspiration. Often what’s most inspiring about beautiful creations and fantastic achievements is not the glamorous photo of the end result to which we may aspire but the story of the person or people behind it, the combination of time, talent, learning, commitment, failure, and perseverance that made what’s possible real.