While fathers around the country celebrated Father’s day weekend with their feet up I was hammering away (pun intended) at rebuilding a set of steps on my back deck. It took me the whole weekend to rebuild four steps and over the 12 hours I worked on the steps I learned a few things about life and business.
1. Pay attention to what others have done before you
1/3 of the project was the actual rebuilding of the steps, the rest was taking apart what the person who originally built the steps had done. My plan was to carefully unassemble what they had made and use that as a template to rebuild. It saved me a lot of time learning how they had put together the steps originally. There is an unhealthy confidence we all possess that tells us that we’re the first ones that have ever ___________. We’re not so learn from the people who have gone before you.
2. If it’s broke, fix it.
Whoever built those steps last didn’t do it right. They put very large boards bordering the steps so when it rained the water would pool in the corners of all the steps. This caused most of the steps to rot which is why they needed to be replaced. If I had simply rebuilt the steps the same as the guy before me then I would be making the same mistakes he did several years ago. When we work on a project it’s wise to pay attention to those who have gone before us. They did their best and now we can do better, we hope.
3. There are very few things that are easier to do alone. Ask for help.
I didn’t ask anyone to help me on this project in part because I thought it wasn’t going to be that hard (I was wrong) and because the main guys I rely on to help me were celebrating Father’s Day weekend with their family. I don’t regret not having someone help me because I have a deep, deep, deep satisfaction in the fact that I did it myself but when possible I think you should include others in your work. 1 + 1 = 3 when you work together. I could have finished in 1/3 the time if I had been working with someone else. My life is better and I do better work thanks to the people I collaborate with, especially my wife. Ask for help and you’ll get more done.
4. Shortcuts are stupid.
When I removed the set of steps I noticed that the rot had found its way into some other boards. Each one of those boards had around 20 screws in them. Each screw had been painted over a few times and was recessed enough that I was going to have to dig each one out. In short, it was going to be a lot more work to take the three boards out. The steps were attached to the deck by a board two inches by eight inches. That board attached to the three now rotted boards with the family of screws in each of them. I strongly considered leaving them in place but I knew that if I took that shortcut I would be putting all new materials on a very weak foundation. It would have been a waste of time to put the steps on those bad boards. I replaced them because shortcuts are stupid. The kind of shortcuts that might end up ruining your whole project aren’t worth it. Do it right or just don’t do it. No one would have known until it broke that I skipped that part but I would have known and it would have haunted me. Shortcuts in relationships and our work haunt us.
5. Stop working to do better work.
I didn’t have to Google anything related to my project but I did have to stand back and stare as my mess several times. For 3-4 minutes I was stand with hand on chin humming the occasional “hm”, considering my next steps. Don’t more forward without a plan. Most of the time my planning consisted of asking myself, “What is my next step?” (no pun intended). I was not ten steps ahead in the project, I was just trying to figure out what was the best next step. We should all build in times of reflection, pondering and pause into our lives. Pausing brings perspective and perspective is how wise people view the world.
6. Set expectations for others
When I went to the hardware store to pick out and pick up the lumber for the job I told the guy working in the stacks of lumber that he’d probably see me again later in the day. He laughed and I said, “Hey man, I’m just being realistic.” 10 minutes later as I was driving out of the lumber lot the attendant noted that I had forgotten to get two pieces I had paid for. I went back to the lumber stacks and saw my friend who I told, “I said I’d be back didn’t I?” Did I feel dumb when I forgot two of the six boards I ordered? Yes. I also expected to mess up because when I’m unfamiliar with something I second guess myself, get nervous and make simple mistakes. Maybe that guy thought I was an idiot because I had to come back but I think he thought I was smart because I knew my limitations.
7. Stay optimistic
All weekend long when I told someone I was working on the steps I told them “I have no idea how it’s going to turn out and no idea when it’ll be done but I’m optimistic.” I was. Before I started the project I believed I would finish it this weekend. That opinion wasn’t based on any experience rebuilding steps because I don’t have any. I was simply optimistic. It was a choice. You can choose to be optimistic and it will have a profound and powerful effect on whatever you’re doing. If you expect to make $35,000 a year the rest of your life then you’ll fulfill that prophecy. If you expect to have a lot of conflict with your spouse then you likely will. When we express emotion about something that hasn’t happened yet it changes what happens.
8. Don’t expect perfection
The board that I had to attach the full step assembly to was the most important board of the entire project. I put it on wrong. It was an inch too low. It had 12 screws in it and it took me at least 15 minutes to measure, cut and attach it. It was too low. I had to take it apart and reattach it. I wasn’t mad though. I expected to screw up. Watching hundreds, perhaps thousands of hours of “This Old House” does not qualify anyone to do anything other than know the theme song to the show really well. For 12+ hours I expected to screw up. Most of the time I didn’t but when I did I didn’t get frustrated or mad at myself. The emotional energy I saved by expecting to screw up was tremendous. When I messed up I immediately considered what I had just learned. How would your life change if every time you made a mistake in your marriage, as a parent or in your job if you focused on what you just learned instead of the mistake alone? I don’t remember many of the mistakes. I remember learning a lot.
9. If you’re lacking creativity do something completely different
When you need great ideas in one area it’s best to not work in that area but to do something completely different. By rebuilding my steps I gained insight into areas completely unrelated to my back deck. Last week I went to New York City to speak at BlogWorld. It’s amazing how clarity comes when we remove ourselves from the problem. If you’re looking for inspiration or perspective then change your surroundings and your habits. We are foolish to expect a different result without changing our habits or location. They don’t assess flood damage from the ground and neither should we try to assess our lives from within our normal routines. If you want to gain something you must change something.
10. Take a before picture
Before I started my project I took a picture of the steps. That picture helped me redesign the steps and it also served as a reminder of how much better things looked when I was done. Your memory will never tell as good a story as your camera will. Take a picture of before and after. Only you will know how much work went into the transformation which is all the more reason to take a before and after picture. At that event in New York City Jay Baer showed a graphic of the advertising revenue from his web site. The first three years it was 0$. Last year it was $20,000. This year it’s $80,000. Your achievements are always sweeter when placed beside your humble beginnings. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” That’s true, so do it.
11. Include people who can’t help
My son is four and he’s not much help when it comes to getting things done. I’m confident that having him around this weekend (and his sister) added an hour to my work. I have this really, really powerful drill that can mix mortar and screw in a four inch screw in about two seconds. I think it’s cool and I’m 34. My son thinks that drill is awesome. If I was four I would too. I let Samuel help me a few times because I love spending time with him even if everything takes longer. When we include people into our work and life that can’t really help but can learn from the experience we’re giving a gift. Giving is good. Giving is better than getting it done sooner no matter what “it” is. Hopefully someday my son will be better at installing steps than his dad is.
When do you learn, grow and get the best ideas?