What I’ve Learned from Doing It Myself

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.

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  1. Craig says:

    Well, lucky me–my toilet is running, so there’s a fantastic growth opportunity for this weekend. Joy.

    Of course, I do know what you mean. I make beer and wine, for instance, and I know that craftsmanship is a great source of pleasure and pride.

  2. Retirement Savior says:

    Those are true words. With me, it was learning how to fix the car. There is definitely an element of feeling self-sufficient or manly (if that happens to be your gender) when you are able to take care of household problems on your own.

    And the best part is, it’s a great common denominator of conversation. No matter your walk of life, you can kick up a conversation about car trouble or jobs around the house.

  3. Johanna says:

    Apparently it annoys some people that I don’t say enough positive things, so let it be known: I think this is a good post.

    Most of the examples are drawn from the “shop class” realm, but it seems that most of the principles would apply equally well to the “home ec” side of things too (e.g., cooking and sewing).

    When I was in grad school, I was helping one of my friends shop for a sofa for his apartment. We checked out a showroom liquidation sale, and found that for a ridiculously cheap price, they had a sofa that was perfect in every way, except one of the seams had about a 6-inch tear in it. I suggested that he buy it and mend the seam. He admitted that he didn’t know how. So I did. I think that was the most valuable seam I’ve ever sewn. That felt good.

  4. katie says:

    Trent, I think you love to use the word simple. But I probably should have figured out from your blog’s title. I just laugh because I majored in the hard sciences exactly because they’re NOT simple. I guess other people like simple. I like organized and complicated but I’m probably weird :)

  5. Chris Martin says:

    Rooftop work and sixpacks: not a good combination. I had a friend whose husband died while working on a roof.

  6. Kevin says:

    Oh, without a doubt. There’s something viscerally, emotionally, psychologically satisfying about making and fixing things.

    As an avid DIY-er and tinkerer, this post resonates with me. Everyone ought to be taught how to do basic repairs and DIY projects. You save money, and even better, it’s good for you.

  7. Stephan F- says:

    I’ve noticed that it works for real physical objects but not so much for things that are virtual. It used to be fixing someone’s computer (removing the 20 different kinds of malware and other cruft) and getting it working was a big deal, now it’s like , yeah, thanks, whatever, I need to get back to my harvest in Farmtown.
    Building a computer from chips is much more rewarding then that but then it doesn’t require much human interaction.

  8. Meg says:

    I’m going to have to check out that book, it sounds like it really explains my and my sister’s desire to have hobbies that create stuff. I currently oscillate between knitting and quilting and I am thinking about taking up painting. My sister occasionally crochets and is very into cake decorating right now.

    I have long appreciated the value of being able to cook for myself. Most things I make taste sooo much better than store or restaurant bought.

    By the way Johanna, I think your comments are very useful, keep it up.

  9. chacha1 says:

    “One’s sense of self-worth is improved …” Very true, and in this high-anxiety society of ours it is extremely therapeutic to execute something visible and, as Trent says, tangible. That’s one of the reasons I like cleaning house – because when it’s done I have a Clean House that everyone can see & enjoy. May be one of the reasons decluttering is so in the news right now?

    @Johanna – great story. Furniture that’s slightly borked can be a terrific buy if you’re daring enough to fix it/paint it/stitch it up!

  10. Priscilla says:

    I learned from my mother that fixing things around the house takes patience, step-by-step progress, and a knowledge of how to use basic tools, but that you get out of it a sense of accomplishment, new confidence, new skills, and a fixed thing!

    As you do, I also enjoy successfully fixing the toilet, and also find that my hobby of sewing employs many of these skills and offers the same rewards. I feel empowered that if I need a new skirt, I just make it for myself at home and am not dependent on what might be available at the department store.

  11. Try new things. and practice old things. i agree

  12. steve says:

    Next thing you know Trent will be dropping the tranny on that old truck right out in the driveway.

  13. Robin Crickman says:

    A book I believe worth reading is the biography
    of the nobel laureate in physics called
    Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. In the book
    the above named Richard Feynman relates (among
    many other things) how his father challenged
    his childred to learn.

  14. Ohh, I felt like that recently! Our dishwasher wasn’t working properly, so my husband and I figured out to take it apart and clean out the part that wasn’t working properly. We felt so happy that we did it ourselves.

    I don’t know if you experience this, but whenever we do a job like that, I usually think, “Wow! That really wasn’t that hard.”. I guess I normally think of that sort of job as being really complicated and impossible, and I’m usually in for a happy surprise when we actually dig in and get it done.

  15. Yelena says:

    Trent, I was just trying to explain this idea to my husband (who still doesn’t get it why I want a sewing machine for X-mas). Ever since college, the only products of my labor were either intangible or existing purely in the electronic form (reports, e-mails, blogs, articles, etc). Sometimes I feel like there’s so little that I created in my life that can actually be touched.

    I’m not very handy at all (although I’d love to be). But I love scrapbooking, making simple toys for my little one, cooking and gardening.

  16. Rosa Rugosa says:

    Yes! Actually I so wish I had had the option to learn carpentry in school instead of cooking and sewing (for which I have no aptitude whatsoever). Several years back, Dave & I taught ourselves how to install hardwood floors in our house. I would say the intensity of my desire outweighed all rational obstacles – and those floors came out great – and the ones after that even better – and I am still in awe every day over what we created. In my next life, I am absolutely coming back as a carpenter/arborist!

  17. lurker carl says:

    I’ve always been a DIY fan. Most mechanical things we depend upon aren’t complex and many are easy enough to repair when necessary. And very frugal as well.

  18. Bethany says:

    This is an excellent post and very true. I think people underestimate the value of working with your hands. As an art history grad student I rarely get to do anything hands-on (first rule of a museum, don’t touch!) but my job at the campus library’s preservation department allows me a couple hours each week to work with my hands doing minor conservation repairs on broken books. Having this hands-on job not only helps pay the bills, it also gives me a good chance to exercise skills that aren’t purely cerebral and analytical. It’s a nice break (even though it’s work!) and generally refocuses my mind to get back to studying with increased enthusiasm.

  19. Claudia says:

    If something was broke, my father would have me study it and try to figure out why. Once it was as simple as a soldered wire had come loose on a radio. My husband and I also bought a Reader’s Digest book called “How to Fix Anything”. We repaired problems with many electronics and our cars. The book would list various scenarios and tell you the difficulty level of repairing the problem and if you needed a professional (although,not always needed).One does reach a high level of satisfaction in doing it yourself, the feeling of accomplishment as well as the savings to your wallet.
    I once had a friend who refused to go down-hill skiing as she was afraid of falling and looking like a fool. I learned as an adult and it was embarrassing to be sprawled all over the hill while a six year old whizzed by me, but if I hadn’t accepted looking a little stupid, I would have missed some of the most fun I have ever had. There are many ways one can challenge themselves and feel euphoric when the challenge is met!

  20. anne says:

    so true!

    a few years back i took apart our broken washing machine and replaced the water pump.

    me!! all by myself!!

    when people asked how our summer was, that’s all i wanted to talk about.

  21. ka8apf says:

    Great site~

    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that everything we do is a state of mind.
    Due to financial constraints, I had to do more complex engine work to my car. (changing timing belt, replacing cam seals, etc.) So I purchased a haynes manual and a chiltons manual (expensive at auto/book store, very reasonable on Amazon.com) and did the work myself.
    While doing this work, I realized that everything we do is dependent on what we are comfortable with. I work on computers as a sideline, so I think nothing of taking the cover of, tinkering around inside, adding or subtracting as needed.
    I work with people that feel the same way about cars, opening the hood, diagnosing problems, dropping a transmission, changing the engine, you get the idea, but they would hesitate with trepidation on taking a cover off a computer. We tend to hold ourselves back, everything is the same… we just need to get comfortable with other things and go outside our comfort zone.

  22. dsz says:

    This post resonates with me. I was brought up this way. Daddy was a serviceman by trade but more than that was naturally curious about everything, mostly about how things worked. Mama was never averse to tackling a project either so I got it from both sides. Few feelings are better than standing back looking at a completed project or repair and knowing you did that.
    From rebuilding a Chevy engine with my father to installing new floors in my house single-handedly, few things give me more pleasure. One benefit Trent touched on is it increases you confidence about everything, not just your DIY skills. Working through a project makes you feel you can do anything and this mindset shows. You’ll have a more confident attitude and that makes you better at work and in volunteer and social circles. People are drawn to success.
    One aspect I didn’t see mentioned is honing your problem solving skills-the brain works in wondrous ways and fixing the washing machine will improve your logical and predictive skills and that’s a benefit to all aspects of one’s life.
    A side plus for me is my beloved parents have been gone for 20 years now and every time I pick up a hammer Daddy is there with me and when I’m planning my elaborate Halloween displays I swear I’m getting Mama as a muse and that’s more precious to me than anything.
    @#9 Robin-I agree. Richard Feynman was one of our country’s greatest minds. Readers, please don’t let the physics reference put you off, he was not a boring, dry man. Most of his brilliance was because of thinking out of the box and he was blessed with an amazing sense of humor and playfulness. The book is a great read and a testament to insatiable curiosity. For reference, he worked on the Manhattan Project and served on the Rogers Commission investigating the Challenger disaster. (I just picked my next book(s) to read, his are among my keepers)
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman

  23. gardenurse says:

    “If you keep your hands busy, your mind will take care of itself.” As stated by my late grandfather, who scrubbed every blackened pot & pan in the house after my grandmother died. Instead of turning to he used his hands to sooth his heart ache. He also got very busy in his wood shop & I have many of his unique creations.

    This is so true. There is something about working with your hands and seeing that completed project that is very thereaputic. It gives a sense of accomplishment, which builds confidence and self worth, and all those good feelings that good, honest, hard work does.

    We are a “throw away” society, and it just sickens me to think about it sometimes. We need to take care of the things we have, and in doing so, we save time, money, and the environment.

    Since I’ve started reading this blog, I find myself agreeing with many things here. Keep up the good posts!

  24. jgos says:

    Something I read once that is a simple but profound concept, and had an empowering impact on me, was “If somebody else can learn how to do something, you can too! You likely are just as smart as they are.” Another concept that I have also tried to teach my children is to not shy away from learning new things, telling them “You can do hard things.”

  25. I have found that with not too much difficulty I can repair toilets. I have 3 bathrooms and over the course of 15 years of living in my condo I have replaced many parts in those toilets. All I do is look in there to see what isn’t working properly, head down to my nearest Lowe’s and check out the toilet repair section. It’s magic.

  26. Georgia says:

    I am paranoid about all things technical. So when I had a problem with my vacuum, got out the manual, and saw what a simple problem it was – I fixed it. Boy, did I feel great.

    I once did that with sewing. My mother-in-law always said I was selfish to read so much. I should do more sewing, cooking, baking, etc. for my family. So – I got a book on knitting & crocheting and proceeded to learn to crochet. I knew my MIL would help if I needed it. I got a 2-3″ doily done beautifully. I showed it to my MIL and then put it up. I decided I could have read 2 books in the time it took me to do that little piece of craft. I had proved I could do it, but just did not have the motivation to keep it up, so it never got completed.

    I will try to do a few more things on my own. At 72, any new things I learn will add to the value of my life and keep my brain kicking on all cylinders at the same time. Thanks, Trent.

  27. Amateur says:

    One can always learn the easy way, just observing. I’ve been in an office where there were expansions being made as office workers hammered away at computers and contractors literally hammered away at the surrounding. I saw some of the guys doing plaster work, installing drywall, and I was wow’d by how easy they made it seem, that were wasn’t magic to it, just precision, experience, and some teamwork. Not that watching a few mins here and there taught me all that much, but I did learn the sequence of doing things. Had I embarked on the journey to do something like that without some visual aid, I’m certain I would mix up some steps or do a step before another.

  28. Eileen says:

    Really enjoyed reading this. My dad, long since having achieved his own financial independence, does EVERYTHING himself. When I question why he doesn’t just hire stuff out, he always says he gains a lot it gives him a lot of good thinking time to just do a job himself.

  29. Lee says:

    Trent..I have been receiving your blog for sometime now and find it very helpful and interesting. When you set your posts aside as “public domain” I was really excited. I have been trying to set up a similar blog site and will certainly use some of your posts. Thank you for allowing those of us just starting out to gain from your insights.

  30. This is one of the main reasons wht I became such an avidDIY-er. Not so much from the financial apsect of saving money by doing it myself, but by the way I was able to “transfer” the techniques I picked up during certain projects to other problems I encountered. It is really quite addicting.

    The social aspect is nice too, and especially, now that I have a son to share these times with, he has already become my able-boided assistant at the ripe old age of two!

    Great post

  31. craig says:

    I caught the DIY bug when we bought our first house 9 years ago. Since then I have build new cabinets, replaced toilets and their innards, done some light plumbing, installed crown moulding and chair rail, laid tile, and my biggest project: completely gutting my office studio and turning it into a soundproof recording space- and building all of the furniture myself (I even learned to sew so I could make the curtains). It’s been two years since I finished the office space, and every time I walk in there I still think “yeah, I did this”. I guarantee the quality of work is better than if I had hired a contractor who didn’t have to live in the space.

    What did I know before doing all this? Very litte. I just had the desire to learn and the willingness to work painfully slowly (I had to rebuild some of the interior framing three times to get it right, but it was RIGHT when it was done, dangit).

    Learn and do. Never hire someone when you can do it yourself.

    Thanks for a great post (and everyone should read “Shop Class as Soulcraft as well).

  32. Joanna says:

    Love the post, Trent. I’d love to see more real-life examples of things you do around the house. The vinegar as fabric softener / fix it yourself posts get me started thinking and often improve my own life.

    Keep it up!

  33. Strider says:

    Thanks for the book tip, “Shopcraft as Soulcraft” is now on my list to borrow from the library.

    This post resonates greatly with me. Growing up my dad fixed all kinds of things around the house from plumbing, cars, electric fences, etc. As the eldest son I of course became his assistant. I learned a few choice expletives :) but also learned a lot about the problem solving process and how to use a variety of tools.

    I worked at the family business as a shop hand where my metal working and hydraulics education was extended as well as learning how to drive some heavy equipment. After HS graduation I started attending college going for an Elec. Eng. degree. I continued working at the shop where my co-workers greatly encouraged me to finish my degree. The satisfaction of the manual work was satisfying but made it very difficult to provide for a family.

    From all of this I find value in learning both “mechanical” and “cerebral” pursuits and will encourage my children to explore both as they decide on careers/vocations.

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