Recently, I had the pleasure of reading Matthew Crawford’s excellent book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which is an extension of Crawford’s essay of the same name which appeared in 2006.
Crawford’s basic argument is simple: the manual trades (repair work, carpentry, and so on) offer intellectual, personal, and physical challenges and pleasures that the information economy is simply incapable of matching. The pleasure of working with one’s hands, the challenge of solving problems of machine building and spatial geometry, and the process of apprenticeship and skill growth are nearly absent in today’s economy, but each provide enormous opportunities for personal growth and happiness that we’re missing out on. Crawford attributes the recent growth in personal gardening and other similar “work with your hands” hobbies as a manifestation of that unfulfilled need in our lives.
This is similar to the things I’ve discovered over the last few years, as I’ve been attempting to do more and more manual tasks for myself, from fixing sinks and toilets to having a large garden and making my own laundry detergent. Such tasks require me to both perform physical actions and solve problems along the way, which has a lot of subtle benefits.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the past few years from doing it myself beyond merely saving some money.
7 Lessons I’ve Learned From Doing It Myself
1. Complex new tasks aren’t things to be afraid of
For many, the idea of starting on a complex task that they’ve never tried before fills them with trepidation. They fear failure. They fear taking too long. And so they never start at all.
Overcoming that fear and developing a willingness to take on these tasks instead of handing them off to others is a major step towards becoming more reliable and more valuable, not only to yourself but to the world around you. When you’re actually willing to take on things that seem hard, the world opens to you in a new way.
2. One’s sense of self-worth is often improved by completing tangible tasks
Just recently, I fixed a broken toilet for the first time. In the past, I would have simply called a plumber in for the repair, but I spent the time, diagnosed the problem, and fixed it myself. When I was finished, I felt good. I was proud of myself and I had a newfound sense of what I could accomplish.
To put it simply, doing things yourself increases your self-worth. You feel good because you did it and you feel more capable because you know you can do it again.
3. The material world is not just a disposable one
There are so many elements of the modern world that are seemingly disposable and forgettable. If something breaks, why not just toss it? It’s what many people do.
Taking the time to diagnose the problem and find a solution for it means that you’re facing the fact that the world isn’t as purely disposable as you thought. The crock pot with a broken leg still has usefulness. It still has value. It just requires a bit of effort and care to make it useful again – and that means one less crock pot purchased new and one less crock pot taking up space in a landfill somewhere. The material world isn’t simply disposable, and it seems even less so when we look up close.
4. There are infinite opportunities to learn and teach in a simple task
A door won’t stay closed, so I make a simple door jam to slide under it. My son observes this and asks what the door jam is and how it works. Suddenly, I have a great opportunity to talk about wedges and triangles and the basic idea of friction, resulting in a great conversation with him.
Whenever you tackle things yourself, particularly when you involve other people, there are countless opportunities to teach all sorts of things – and to be taught these things as well. Why do some woods work better for chairs than other ones? How does a refrigerator work? These questions become less mysterious when you do it yourself – and when you understand how things work, the world is less scary and you’re more empowered to> interact with it.
5. Practice improves your skill at nearly everything
The more often you do a task, the better you get at it. For example, the first time you change the oil on your car, it seems scary and it takes a long time because you’re carefully following the manual and acting very cautiously. By the tenth time, you’re twisting that cap off with abandon, moving through the task with real efficiency. You’ve become better at it – it’s easier now and it seems like far less of an obstacle.
The same is true for nearly any task you perform. Cooking is a great example. At first, frying an egg seems impossible, but if you practice, it becomes easy. Then you have the confidence to try other kitchen tasks and they’re hard at first … but then they become easier. Things get done faster and more efficiently, with less waste. Before you know it, you’ll wonder why you ever bothered to eat out.
6. Many of the simple techniques used in manual labor can be used to make other tasks easier, amplifying the “practice” effect
When you repair a toilet, for example, you’re likely going to be forced to use a few simple tools – a crescent wrench and a pipe wrench. The first time you use these tools, you’ll be unwieldy, but as you use them again and again in various situations, it becomes easier. You understand how the tool works and your wrist is a bit stronger, too.
Later, you might be attempting to assemble a small prefab desk for someone and suddenly you need to use a crescent wrench again. The skill in using it is already with you – you can just use the tool as it now comes much more naturally to you. That simple technique is part of your repertoire, making more complex procedures that much easier.
(This is obviously a simple example, but I think you get the idea.)
7. Doing it yourself offers unique opportunities for collaboration and social interaction
You’ve finally built up the bravery to attempt to re-shingle your own roof – but you recognize that it will be a lot easier with some additional help. So you call your friends, buy a few six packs, and everyone takes turns doing the repetitive tasks. You get the chance to teach a few people how to do some of the elements and, in the end, everyone has a good time. Plus, now you have a new roof and you’ve sharpened your skills, further building your confidence.
Perhaps you don’t quite know how to do some of the things, but luckily you have a friend who is a carpenter who can teach you some of the more advanced things you’ll need to do. You kneel side by side with your friend as he shows you how to line up a shingle properly – and you’ve just learned something new, side by side with a friend. That’s the best way to learn, in a collaborative environment, as it builds relationships and leaves both people feeling better.
Doing physical tasks exercises your body, your mind, and your social skills. Perhaps this weekend is the perfect time for you to tackle that project you’ve been dreading and see what you can learn from it.