Doing Things the Hard Way (DTTHW)

A few months ago, I built a bedroom set for my goddaughter that included a storage bed, vanity table with mirror, and a little side table.

They turned out okay, and I’m sure that for the $800 or $900 I spent on materials and tools I used to build it, I could have bought her a much nicer looking, commercially made bed.

She seems grateful, but somewhere in my stomach is a little pit of doubt that says, “If they break, that’s your fault.  She can’t return them if she doesn’t like them.  She doesn’t really understand that your gift to her was the hundred hours or so you spent making them.”

Those are all okay things with me, because to me, the gift was as much for me as it was for her.  Am I proud of the work I did?  Sure, I guess.  But I have a really good idea now of how to build a storage bed and stuff, and I know what mistakes I could avoid if I made the same kind of set again for someone else, and I know that I would be successful if I ever needed to do those things.

I started out woodworking (cough…if you can really call it that) maybe a year ago, when I built a compost bin for my backyard.  That was followed by a few night stands, a storage bin for my basement, and some extra stuff to frame and pretty-up the solar panel installation I have on the side of my house.

Each time, I’m sure I could have gone to the store and bought a piece of furniture that was better-made than what I did at home, but with each project, I got a little bit better and made fewer dumb mistakes.  I also acquired more confidence that I could take the next step in what I wanted to build, and in what I believed it was possible for me to build.

But that confidence transfers to other things in my life.  If I can build a night-stand from scratch, surely I can grow my own potatoes or plant a cherry tree.  If I can re-floor my basement (which I did after it flooded a year ago), I bet I can build some cabinets down in my basement, or maybe install a new vanity in the bathroom in a year or two (or finish my attic, but shhhh, don’t tell my wife that’s on the horizon).

I guess for me, there are lots of times that there are easy ways of doing things (go to the store and buy furniture, use a calculator, ask someone to pick me up from the car repair shop) and harder ways of doing things (build my own desk, do that math problem by hand, walk the two miles home from the shop), and to me, there is more than just virtue in doing things the harder way.

Let me take a step back and tell a story.  When I was younger, my dad bought me and my brother new bikes for Christmas.  I was maybe 12 and my brother a few years younger.  My dad didn’t put them together.  Why would he?  He had two sons capable of putting together a few bikes by themselves.  They were our bikes–why wouldn’t we have put them together ourselves?

Note:  This was the same kind of house where if you wanted a sandwich, you made your own.

I was lucky enough to inherit a basement bedroom and bathroom after my older brother moved out, but when the toilet’s internals needed to be replace, guess who ended up with the ballcock in his hands?  Why would my dad have to fix it?  It was my bathroom…

Later, when I was in college, I lived with a few roomates.  One time, when our toilet started running, I went out and spent 7 or 8 bucks to buy new stuff for it.  My roommate had never fixed a running toilet, so I asked her if she wanted to watch me fix it so she could learn how to do it.  Her response: “Why would I want to do that?”

I don’t think I’m a better person because I like to do things for myself, and that I try to DTTHW.  But I know that being a bad craftsman teaches me to appreciate the work that goes into hand cut dove-tails, that taking the time to work my way through math problems reminds me of how easy it is to make mistakes, and that walking home from the car shop gives me time to think and notice parts of the street that I never pay attention to when I’m driving.

I do think that DTTHW makes me a happier person, though, because I feel like I have control of my life.  If I want a new gaming computer, but only have $600 to spend instead of $2000, I know that I can buy the parts and put together the machine myself.  I also know that if I don’t like the way the rockwall in my front yard looks, I can arrange it so that I do like it.

In short, to me, happiness is being able to arrange the world the way you want it.  The more control you give yourself over being able to change things to how you want them, the happier I think you’ll be.   Cooking a good meal with my wife has always been a happier occasion than eating a good meal.  Looking at something nice that I built to make my life easier makes me happy because I was able to be in charge of making my own life better, which, I think, is exactly where you want to be.

[This is turning out to be a much longer post than I intended.  My apologies. I’m sure there’s another thousand words in me about “kids these days!” but I’ll save it for a later time.]




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