Teach a Man to Fish and He Can Eat for a Lifetime: Lessons for Woodworkers and Entrepreneurs

custom baseboard molding
Custom Baseboard Molding

We’re putting the finishing touches on the kitchen after having painted all three floors of our house in preparation to sell it and downsize. One of the minor projects in the house was to install a small piece of baseboard molding near the refrigerator (see picture). Unfortunately, the original piece was missing and not to be found around the house. A few years ago I would have driven to one of the big box home improvement stores to try and find a match. Now, I just cut my own. A woodworker with a good router table, a selection of router bits, a miter saw, and table saw can knock something like this out in a few minutes. That’s the joy and beauty of learning new skills in woodworking (or learning to fish). We don’t have to buy pieces like baseboard, but can create any length, with any pattern at the top, with any angles at the end.  We didn’t get there by accident, though.  We had to learn to fish by continually building new skills, insourcing, and enjoying the ride.

Continually build new skills

How does one learn to fish in woodworking (or entrepreneurship, or life for that matter)?  There are several methods such as taking a short class, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, or being mentored by someone else.  With explosion of the Internet over the past several years there are so many different ways to accelerate our journey up the learning curve.

Several years ago, a very popular business book came out called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  One of the habits Covey talks about is sharpening the saw.  His analogy is that you wouldn’t spend all day trying to saw down a tree with a dull blade.  You’d stop, sharpen the saw, then quickly do the job.  Why don’t we always do that in business?  Sometimes, we need to just step away and sharpen that saw (or build new skills) before moving on with a project.

That skill to rout a baseboard didn’t come about by magic.  I got some hands on training at the Festool Ubershop in Beltsville, Maryland from Brian Graham when I bought some of my Festools.  Another great way to spin up quickly is to take a class at Woodcraft.  Typically these are night classes and only last 4 hours or so.  I’ve taken great classes on pen turning, raised panel cabinetry, and bowl turning.  If there is something you always wanted to learn, or something that will help you build a business, set aside the time to learn via a class, video or podcast.

Speaking of mentorship, I’m working my way through the massive biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow called Titan, The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and there are several examples of J.D. learning to fish. For those who aren’t familiar with Rockefeller, he was the head of Standard Oil in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one point he was the richest man in the world.  His long road to riches started as a humble assistant bookkeeper. Someone mentored him on bookkeeping and he said in an interview that bookkeeping skill was the bedrock for his future success because it gave him insight into how well (or poor) a business was doing.  The numbers didn’t lie when he evaluated businesses to acquire.  There are so many great lessons learned for woodworkers and entrepreneurs from John D. that we’ll have an upcoming blog post on him.

Insource

In our travels around Asia for work, a colleague of mine, Rich Davis, pointed me (thanks, Rich) to a blogger named Mr Money Mustache (aka “MMM”) whose blog is about financial independence.  I can do without MMM’s F-bombs, but he does have sage advice for those striving for early retirement and one of his tenets is to do the work around the house yourself rather than hiring it out.  This is contrary to the current rules of engagement that say we should hire everything out that we can.  Is this a contradiction with the last post about only doing what only we can do?  I don’t think so.  During my command tours in the Air Force, I delegated tasks and mentored my Airmen because it built their capacity.  In addition, I couldn’t possibly do everything myself.  At home, by outsourcing I’m supporting a local business, but I’m not necessarily building capacity of someone who has done that skill for a very long time.  On the flip side, if I do the work myself I am definitely building capacity because I am not as skilled in as many trades.  I’m pretty comfortable with carpentry, but have a long way to go in installing electrical wiring, or installing plumbing, for example.  Insourcing is building my family’s capacity.

A great example of this is in the book by Ashlee Vance that came out in 2015 about Elon Musk.  Musk owns Tesla, Space X, and Solar City.  One of the striking things about Space X is that Musk decided to insource much of the work that normally would have been outsourced.  He would tell a young engineer that the engineer needed to design and build a particular part and give him or her what seemed like an impossible deadline.  Why?  Think of the incredible capacity in that one engineer that now not only knows how to design a part on paper or on the computer, but can actually manufacture it.  Incredible.  Another reason is that it gave him much more control over the design and precision of the part.

Going back to the household example, if I can do it, why wouldn’t I?  I spent many summers painting to make money for college.  Why would I hire someone else to paint my house?  I can do it with just as high a quality for probably less than a tenth of the cost, especially when I leverage the free teenager labor in our house.  They love to work on Dad’s projects.  Ask Mitch about tiling the basement if you see him ; )

Enjoy the ride

The last main point is to enjoy the ride.  A couple years ago I read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft:  An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford writes about how we have lost the experience of working with our hands.  He’s not talking about experience as in gained knowledge, but experiencing the joy of working with our hands.  Crawford got his degree then started working in Corporate America.  He realized the cubicle life was not for him, quit, and started his own motorcycle repair business.  Talk about guts.  I think Crawford is on to something as we wrote about in our post about getting in the zone and “flow state.”  In addition, most entrepreneurs realize they are in for a long gritty slog, but need to step away from time to time and enjoy the successes they have achieved so far before returning to the salt mines.  Along those lines, I think this entrepreneur is going to enjoy the ride by going downstairs to have some of that lunch Mrs Woodworker just made.

Consider learning how to fish before you start eating that fish in front of you.  It will help you in woodworking, entrepreneurship, and life.

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