Down in the infamous basement, a pleasingly polished floor has emerged from the dust and dinge. It’s glass-like, dull grey but glassy nonetheless – cold to the touch yet subtly warming, and smooth with a satisfying, rubbery squeak when you run your fingers over it.
Yes, I get up to that sort of thing down in the basement.
But it hasn’t always been this pleasant underfoot in our subterranean metaphor. Indulge your curiosity for a few minutes and I promise you’ll pick-up something useful.
Let me explain…
Enter a new world of chemistry and craft
Until recently, our late 19th century basement floor was an undulating jigsaw of smashed yorkstone flags – a toothy, long forgotten crime scene from the Ripper era. Uneven, clumsy – you couldn’t walk barefoot or slippered here, like you would in any other bathroom or kitchen (the kind this subterranean construction site will eventually become).
Then, almost a decade ago, I threw a tonne of concrete at it, and it’s been like porridge unbowled ever since. Abandoned to the cold, all hard and uninviting.
Yet the glossy new floor we see today is not without its story too. It’s the product of many months of (mainly) mental and (eventual) physical graft. One that hurled me into, as you are about to discover, the realm of self-levelling floor compounds: a thrilling domain of chemistry and craft.
To prepare for the job of laying it, I poured over videos of handsome men in Europe, striding effortlessly through the alchemy of mixing and laying.
I marvelled as a talented lady in some stoic terraced house like ours, spread mysterious grey liquids to perfect evenness using only a hand trowel and her genius.
I let burly all-American patriots convince me that lumpy bits, stuck to the bottom of my mixing tub, are more of a hindrance to civilization than their superabundance of unchecked firearms.
Here begins today’s lesson
Laying a floor is unfamiliar territory, even for an advanced DIYer like me. And unfamiliar territory is fertile ground for the imagination, as it steps in to mitigate uncertainty.
If you’ve an unchosen preference for nerves, anxiety or otherwise ruminating over action, you’ll know what’s going on here.
And much as I know you wish it was, this post isn’t about laying floors or self-levelling compounds. It’s a handy microcosm of the relentless struggle many of us face between what’s scary and what moves us forward in life, business, our careers, and other flailing basement renovation projects.
Tricks of the imagination
Before committing to the job, instead of asking ‘what could go right?’ my mind posed the misplaced question ‘what could go wrong?’. And, unsurprisingly, a misplaced question begs a misplaced answer – in this case lots.
So to prepare me for certain failure, my imagination conjured up an alternate reality involving skips, chisels and many many hours of back-breaking work, lifting up a new floor that went so tragically wrong.
In this parallel universe, things dropped from the ceiling, embedding themselves permanently in the wet concrete, forevermore. Idiot spouses went ice-skating over it. Lumps and bumps became impassable mountain ranges, accentuating the very problem I set out to solve.
It’s our own fault, I suppose. Over-preparation and rumination is a textbook response to the unknown, for thinkers like us. We compensate for it by filling our heads with new information that quickly becomes immutable knowns, and a false sense of certainty (impending doom).
It’s always wise to prepare and research, a little, before you try anything. But when you’re throwing money at the problem, lying awake thinking about it, venting your nervousness in unhealthy ways, or otherwise not actually doing anything about it – then hey, it’s a problem worth examining.
Now or never
Saturday morning, 11AM.
I’ve tickled about with every diversionary job I can find in the basement, and now there’s nothing left in the way. The time for procrastination, diversion, avoidance and projection is over.
It’s time to lay the new floor.
So I stacked up my bags of self-levelling floor compound (Mapei Ultimate Leveller 1210, in case you’re wondering), assembled my ‘mixing zone’, gathered my special tools and resolved it was now or never.
Even at the time I was mindful of how ridiculous that sounds. We’re spreading some liquid on a surface here, not delivering a baby or quitting a job. This line of thinking is a slippery slope though, isn’t it? Soon you feel bad for feeling bad – like you don’t have any right to. First-world problems, and all that.
Yet I spotted that mental cul-de-sac for what it was, just a thought. I noted the trepidation, then chose action, regardless.
Water. Powder. Mix.
Mix a bit more.
Then the drill started acting up. This wasn’t supposed to happen?! My brain told me I was scheduled to fuck up the finished floor, not the mixing. So I grabbed a trowel and did things by hand for a bit. It worked. Just enough time for the drill to decide it was ready to play again.
Our first batch of floor compound was ready.
Good! Now I can get on with the important job of failing.
So I dolloped a few puddles of mix on the floor – obedient grey pancakes, ready to be fried. I moved it about a bit, suggesting it flowed into the edges. I felt like one of those experts in those YouTube videos.
The liquid complied.
So I poured a bit more, joining up the puddles into miniature gloomy lakes. Then gradually it became a sea. A calming, reflective sea in which I saw my pensive face looking back, a slight curvature daring to peak at the corners.
As I spread the floor compound, it bent to my will – somewhere between butter and double cream, moving pleasingly where it needed to go.
One more mix, and the floor was covered.
But what’s that in the corner?!
An underlying lump of porridge past peeked through the surface. Ah, now this was supposed to happen, my inner perfectionist noticed.
Yet panic didn’t ensue.
I grabbed some mix, skipped over the wine-dark sea like a cement-y Odysseus, then poured some more, spreading it over to mask the problem. And sure enough the compound did what it was supposed to: it self-levelled and righted itself.
It wasn’t perfect, but I settled for better than good enough (now there’s an idea…).
Hang on. I’m enjoying myself, I thought, I didn’t expect this. It wasn’t supposed to turn out this well.
Isn’t this often the way with things we dread?
I’ve a hypothesis about the way things play out, when we finally commit to actually doing something we’ve perhaps put off or dreaded for ages.
Based on my own experience, and that of coaching people to be bold, generally, two categories of outcome seem most probable with this type of scenario…
In one, it’s never anywhere near as bad as you thought it would be. In fact it’s unimaginably different. In our pessimistic machinations, people often forget that things can go well, tolerably even. Dare I say it – enjoyable is actually quite plausible!
In the second, the outcome is dull, uneventful – forgettable even. We never seem to remember all those times reality didn’t live up to our catastrophic predictions, and life just carried on.
After all, who wants to admit their imagination isn’t 100% accurate? Or just plain wrong, most of the time.
On occasion, of course things do go wrong. But we often forget about these instances too, because we quickly move on to the next catastrophe-in-waiting. And if one does lodge in the memory, at least we gain an amusing anecdote for a pseudo-philosophical blog post.
Therein lies some wisdom (and for you, a challenge)
If you’re prone to pessimism, procrastination, perfectionism, rumination, or even simple avoidance of what you know needs to get done – here’s something to consider.
Think now about what you’ve been putting off. It needn’t be DIY related, it could be a decision or next step in your career, life, business or hobby.
- How has your imagination stepped in to fill the void?
- Has it warped what’s at stake?
- Has it skewed the surmountable to the insurmountable?
- Is it possible you’ve bought into a (fraudulent) tale you’ve told yourself?
- Are there more productive arenas in which to engage the power of your misdirected creativity?
If that captured your imagination, here’s another way to look at this…
Can you think of a recent occasion where something you dreaded was actually quite dull and uneventful? Or nothing like you imagined it would be. If it turned out painless, did it verge on enjoyable? Repeatable, even.
What does that tell you about the cost of committing to action versus inaction?
Coaching people, I’ve noticed that the most seemingly painful, dreaded, and avoided choices and their consequences are often the most rewarding to commit to doing something about. There’s something about the perceived nature of our inability to cope (and failure?) that makes victory all the more sweeter.
What came up in your responses? I’m intrigued to hear what insight you drew from my trivial tale of lumpy porridge turned squeaky glassy floors.
If you enjoyed this, there’s a rough-edged accompanying spoken piece on my audio blog ‘Beyond the basement’ – recorded live at the scene of the crime.