What a year of learning Excel taught me about life

An unlikely source of inspiration

If you read the title of this post and thought, “what the hell can anyone learn about life from learning Excel,” I don’t blame you. I know that it is an unlikely source of inspiration. But after spending a year throwing myself into learning how to make Excel work for me, I realized that I was learning so much more than just formulas, formatting, and number crunching. I was learning life lessons that were going to shape how I approached my work, my education, my hobbies, my friendships, and even my marriage.

The more I reflect on it, the more lessons I find in learning Excel. Here is just a sampling:

Life lessons From Learning Excel

Life Lesson #1: Confidence comes from small wins - so break down those big goals

My year of learning Excel all began because I had convinced a hiring manager to take a chance on me and give me a job that required a lot of Excel knowledge - even though I had barely ever used the program before (side note: never let Excel requirements hold you back from applying for a job!!). Right away I was given projects involving big spreadsheets to make sense of and work with. Immediately I was faced with the deflating feeling of being overwhelmed by little numbers and letters on the screen. There was so much going on, and I didn’t know where to start. The only thing that I could possibly do was to try to break things down and try to understand piece by piece what I had in front of me, and what I needed to learn. I took a big formula in the spreadsheet and started to copy and paste smaller parts of it into different cells to try to understand the pieces individually. Instead of trying to become an expert in the whole spreadsheet, learning just one piece of one formula became my biggest goal. When I figured out that first little part, I got a shot of adrenaline - I did it! I was able to understand 1/100th of the spreadsheet!! And if I could do that once, couldn’t I do it again? That first small win gave me the energy and confidence I needed to learn the next part, then the next part, and so on. I have used this lesson in so many other areas of my life - it guides my approach to working out, to decorating my home, even to writing this blog post!

Life Lesson #2: The Growth Mindset is for real, people!

I can’t remember how many times in my life I’ve said “I’m just not a math person.” That is the kind of attitude I had when I first started to learn Excel. And the first times that I saw those “#N/A” or “#NAME?” errors pop up when I was trying to write a formula, I felt so discouraged. Obviously I just wasn’t able to learn how to do this Excel stuff, because I had followed all the instructions in the system about how to do it, and clearly it wasn’t working. If I couldn’t get it to work on the first try, then it wasn’t going to happen for me. But since my new job depended on me figuring it out, I got over that initial feeling of wanting to just throw my hands up and walk away, and instead tried again. And then again. Finally, I saw where my mistake was, and corrected it. Voila! The formulas fell into place and the numbers started appearing the way I wanted them. Maybe I wasn’t “just not an Excel person” - maybe I could learn this stuff after all. If you haven’t heard of the Mindset Theory, here’s the summary: If you think that you “just aren’t good at” Excel (or math, or art, or whatever) and that you don’t have what it takes to get good at it, then you are thinking with a Fixed Mindset (and holding back your own potential). If you instead think that you are an evolving and growing person who can apply themselves and learn new skills, then you are thinking with a Growth Mindset, and opening yourself up to your fullest potential. The best part of Dweck’s research is that you aren’t born with one mindset or the other - you get to choose! And you get to make that choice in how you approach anything in your life.

Life Lesson #3: Failure means you are making progress

Speaking of those error messages - who in the world thought those up? When those messages appear in my cells it feels like I’m playing Mario Cart and I just took a turn way too fast, flew off the highway, and my character disappeared into the nothingness. Actually, it is really more like how I played Sonic the Hedgehog back in the day - I would make some progress, collect some coins, but then hit a spike, lose them all, and probably end up hitting another spike to die. Good thing there were those sign posts to hit along the way to save your progress! When I first started to use Excel, I got super frustrated about not getting things right the very first time. At first it seemed like I was stuck exactly where I started and not making any progress. But as kept at it I realized that for every roadblock, mistake, and frustrating moment, I wasn’t really failing - I was learning. As I continued to work, I saw how essential this process was to my gaining a deeper understanding of what I was doing and how Excel works. Now when I start any new project or take on learning a new skill, I both expect and welcome the early failures and struggles. Without them, I wouldn’t get as far as I know I can go.

Life Lesson #4: The second time is always quicker than the first time

Once I understood that failures were part of the process, I started to see an interesting pattern happening. I saw that the first time I would try to do something - like write a vlookup formula, or create a bar graph - it would take me a really long time to get it right. But then the second time I would try to do the same thing, I was able to do it about 10% faster. The third time I tried I was about 30% faster than the first time. The fourth time got up to about 60% faster, and from there it was a quick progression to nearly 100% faster. Yes - I did time myself learning things once I started to notice this happening. I wanted to see if this would hold true in other areas of life, so I decided to test it out on another passion of mine - snowboarding. I have been riding goofy (right-foot first) down the mountain for nearly 20 years, and I was determined to get as good at riding regular (left-foot first). It seems small, but this was a big challenge for me - and totally essential to bringing my snowboarding to the next level. My first trip to the mountain to take on this challenge was....rough. I usually speed past other boarders, but it was almost like being a beginner again, slowly making my way down, stopping numerous times along the way. About halfway through the day I was so tired I gave up and went back to my goofy ways. My second trip started out just as hard as the first - but I was thrilled to find that I was improving and getting down the mountain faster. My third time up gave me confidence that the pattern I had found in Excel was playing out in snowboarding - I was getting measurably faster with every attempt. There are no set percentages for any person about how quickly they will improve. But I’ve seen this play out in Excel and in so many other parts of life: the second time is always faster than the first.

One More Important Thing I Learned

While I was learning these (and more) life lessons from Excel, I was picking up on something about how different people are able to learn how to use and how to love Excel. It might come naturally for some, but for the rest of us it can be frustrating and overwhelming. I found this to be especially true for people who came from a background similar to mine - liberal arts, with no integrated Excel trainings in school or work. I became 100% convinced that if I could take on this challenge and become an Excel guru, then anyone - ANYONE - can do it.

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