Having just returned from my travels, I felt it was time to launch into some hard work! Ben was in the middle of an extensive building project in Swansea and I thought that it would be an excellent educational experience to work and live on the building site for a couple of weeks. I love working on building sites because the very nature of them is one of possibility! A home is stripped down to its bare components and man reshapes the space into (most of the time) something incredible.
Poetical musings aside, I’ve worked as an unskilled labourer on a number of projects and every time I’ve walked away with a new piece of knowledge or skill. From basic skills like using a brick layer’s line, or painting, to more advanced skills like how to manage a team of people that each have a unique (and sometimes uncomplimentary) skillset. However, this time, I was in a more philosophical mindset and began thinking about all the ways that working on a building site reminded me of some truths about life.
1.) Some things are just difficult
Day one of my working “holiday” in Swansea largely consisted of me painting rooms that had been completed, and tidying and sorting rooms that the rest of the team had dubbed “storage rooms” (read; let’s just randomly put stuff here). At around 4pm, the site’s foreman, Neil, asked if I’d like to drill a hole in a wall. “Would I?!” Naturally, I jumped at the chance to use a power drill. My excitement built as we assembled this rad looking space gun, and we began drilling a hole in the wall. I watched as this thing tore through the plaster like it was nothing (how naïve), and let out an audible “wow”. “It’s diamond-tipped,” replied Neil, proudly, “Want a go?”
So he left, and I drilled. And drilled, and drilled, and drilled. It was the worst. I was sitting in this cramped bathroom, seemingly making absolutely zero progress. The drill was super loud, my arms ached from holding the heavy drill, I was worried that I couldn’t do this basic task, and the worst part was that I’d been asked to drill two of these holes. Cut to 9pm, and I’d finally done it! I’d bored two ventilation holes in the wall (I actually bought my laptop so I could watch Peaky Blinders as I was drilling).
The next day I saw Neil, smiling he asked me “How was it?” “Um, great I guess,” I meekly replied. We then proceeded to have a conversation about how a lot of the houses in Swansea are built from stone. Stone is one of the hardest substances to bore through. I thought that Neil was being mean when he assigned me that task, however as we discussed other stories about annoying holes to drill, I realised that some jobs are just difficult but someone’s got to do them.
2.) Rarely does anything go to plan
Sleeping on the site was pretty rough, my mattress had a plastic cover which amplified the sound of any movement leading to poor sleep, I didn’t have electricity for the first two days, and everything was dusty. Most mornings we’d start at 8am, however, one morning I hear Neil thundering up the stairs. “Nat, come on we’ve got to go!” He shouts up the stairs. I’m awake sharp-like and putting on my work gear in double time. Turns out the delivery man for 25 plasterboards had shown up early and dumped the boards outside of one of the properties as it was beginning to rain.
Two things I now know about plasterboards; you can’t get them wet, and they weigh around 30 kg. The plan was to have them delivered later in the day when more people were on site and it was forecast to be sunny. Anyway, we arrive and it’s all hands on deck as three of us lug these heavy, cumbersome boards into the safety of the hallway. 30 minutes later, we’re red in the face and out of breath, but we’d done it.
Things will almost never go to plan. There will always be some sort of fire that needs to be put out, or economic turmoil, or something that will blow up in our face and you’ll have to completely shift tactics. Being successful in life is less about avoiding crises and more about being good at improvising solutions.
One of the more embarrassing aspects of my working on a building site was my inability to understand what people were telling me to do, or to perform basic operations. Most days it was like learning a new language, or being a 5-year-old constantly asking, “What’s that? What does that do?”
I have two particularly embarrassing moments. The first was when I was asked to get the “bottlenose,” I asked what that was and they told me it was a spade. Three trips to the van later, and after lugging a different spade out each time, I had finally found the right spade!
Another incident was when I was drilling (and also explains why it took so long). Tom, the carpenter, was busying himself and found me drilling, “You know you have to push the drill into the wall?” I looked at him dumbfounded, “really?!” I had no idea that’s how they worked, I assumed that power drills were like screws that pulled themselves into the thing it’s drilling.
I am a 24-year-old university graduate that’s travelled the world, and it took me three tries to get a spade. There is, and always will be, people smarter and more knowledgeable than you, listen more and stop thinking that you’ve no longer got anything more to learn.
4.) You’ll almost never have the perfect tool
Another one of my tasks was removing all the floorboards of a room, we had to see what was underneath them to decide what we were going to do with the space. Upon arrival at the property, I realised that I had no tools, so I texted Neil asking what tools I needed. “A crowbar and a hammer” was the response.
I was looking to get started with the task as fast as possible so I searched high and low for a crowbar and a hammer. I found neither. What I did find was a shovel with a metal handle, a mallet, and a small piece of wood. I figured I could use the shovel as a crowbar, the small piece of wood as a fulcrum, and the mallet to hammer the shovel’s tip between the floorboards. Despite having none of the actual tools available to me, I managed to complete the task in fairly good time.
In life, you’ll rarely have the perfect tool to do something. In this instance, your “tools” are pieces of knowledge, skills, software, hardware, or actual tools. They might not be perfect for the job, but they’re what you’ve got. Instead of wasting resources shopping for a litany of specific tools you’ll use once, figure out what you can do with the tools you currently have. Once you’ve approached the problem with your current toolset, you’ll have a much better understanding of what tools you actually need and can effectively utilise.
5.) A little education goes a long way/ sometimes there’s nothing you can do
Something that I found incredibly frustrating was my inability to do, well, pretty much anything. I was a dead-weight. All I could really do to help out was paint or tidy. Once all the painting had been completed, and rooms cleared, I found myself making great cups of tea for everyone!
I should clarify at this point that in any role, I’m always asking “What’s next?” when I complete a job. I wasn’t being lazy. There were literally no tasks that an unskilled person (me) could do. If Neil, or another member of the team, had a few minutes to spare then they could show me a task that needed to be done and I could plough away at that for the next few hours. However, with the majority of cases, it was much quicker for them to do the task themselves.
As hard as it can be to stand back and watch, when you’re working in a team you need to allow everyone’s innate abilities to thrive. Any large endeavour that you try and complete will be dramatically hindered by a need to learn how to do absolutely everything. On the other hand, if you spend some of your free time building your skills, your flexibility (and therefore how much you can help people) will go through the roof.
There’s a lot of learning in everything that you do
Working on the site taught me a lot about what does into completely refurbishing a house, both technically and managerially. If you’re currently refurbishing a property, I would fully recommend you dedicate a portion of your time to getting down there and mucking in. There is an immense pleasure in being able to physically see a project come together, and knowing that you played a role in its creation. Here’s a recap of some things to remember:
- Some jobs are just hard jobs: Modern society has trained us that things can be done faster/easier/better, but at the end of the day, a bit of elbow grease can save you time and money.
- Things go wrong: Expect things to go wrong, and learn how to go with the flow.
- You are ignorant: Allow people to teach you new things, and listen more
- Make do with what you have: Don’t allow yourself to procrastinate by saying “we need this” or “we need that,” get on with it and you’ll figure out what you actually need.
- Constantly better yourself: As you learn more, you can provide more value to your customers and loved ones.
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