While browsing one of the many flooring installation communities on Facebook, I came across a nightmare of a tile job where the homeowner had decided to roll up their sleeves and do the job themselves. They not only hadn’t bothered to prep the concrete first; they simply slathered on thin set until it was pushing up through the joints and drying all over the top of the tile.

Spacers? This homeowner had apparently never heard of them—the wood-look planks were simply squeezed against each other haphazardly in an approximation of a brick pattern. The excess thin set at the edges of the installation didn’t even look like it had been troweled—more like applied with a shovel blade, with all kinds of strange bumps, waves and valleys left in the mortar as it had dried.

The contractor who shared this photo said that the homeowner was looking to have him finish the job. The advice from fellow contractors was swift, honest and brutal: “Don’t do it. Run away. If you take on this job, you will inherit the whole floor.” Others took a more reasoned approach, stating that if he did decide to take the job, it would require a complete demolition and reinstallation. There was no question in anybody’s mind that the original installation was in any way salvageable.

The contractor in question is a seasoned veteran, and I’m sure he made the right call. My guess is he gave the homeowner an appropriate (and I’m sure eye-opening) quote for what it would take to “finish” the job, and then, when the homeowner balked, he was able to walk away from the mess with his hands clean.

Seasoned tile setters—the ones who know their worth and charge accordingly—can afford to put that type of job in the rearview without another thought. But novices who are desperate to get their hands dirty and eager to build their reputation? I can definitely see some of them taking on a job like this.

And then it struck me: We were all novices once. So I’d like to pose a question to all of you. What was a job you took when you were first starting out that you thought you could handle, but soon found out you were in way over your head? How did you meet the challenge? Most importantly, what did you learn from the experience? 

As we get older and become more confident in our skills and experience, it’s easy to forget those lean, hungry, just-starting-out years. But some of the biggest lessons we take with us throughout our careers come out of those early struggles. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.