On Starting from Scratch
I spent a lot of time when I was younger wishing that I could do certain things. My older brother is an artist who works primarily with metal via blacksmithing. My dad is a lifelong commercial carpenter who, in my mind, can build just about anything. To see them create things with their hands was, and is, incredibly inspiring. The idea of creating something, anything, whether practical or artistic, has been deeply imbedded in me from birth.
What was also imbued in me from birth was a wonderful sense of self-defeatism.
Growing up around the tools of their trades, seeing their workshops, I saw how far I was away from being able to do what they did. The problem with seeing your idols in their glory is that you don’t see the road they took to earn that glory. The accusation lobbed at Millennials about needing instant gratification may or may not be warranted. Whether or not it is a symptom of my generation, I’ve always been impatient and bemoaned lacking the particular skill-set or resources to kickstart me down the path toward my goal. It has been difficult to realize that people who are really good at creating things were once beginners and spent some time being bad at creating things.
There exists a large list of half-baked ideas and failure-to-launch plans with my name right at the top. I would often conceptualize something and be able to see the needed steps before getting discouraged once the project’s full scope became apparent. The specifics of what I needed to learn, the many tiny details that went into doing something well, overwhelmed me. Consequently, the list of accomplishments under my belt was small compared to the list of things I wanted to be good at. But sometime in recent years, I decided I was sick of avoiding things because they were hard.
After getting married, my wife and I didn’t have much room in the budget for expensive, job-specific tools, or space for building out the perfect workshop. As far as having the knowledge, there was no one readily available to teach me or apprentice me as both my dad and brother were busy with full-time jobs. I had to start from scratch with whatever I was going to do. Additionally, the whole idea of “I just want to make stuff with my hands” was pretty damn vague, but vague ideas and desires and an old beat-up hammer I pilfered from my parents house were what I had. So that’s what I started with.
You’ll often see ads for “scratch-made” biscuits, showing some beautiful person, perfectly covered in flour, kneading dough for a second or two. The scene cuts away to a perfectly golden brown biscuit being pulled out of the oven, a thick wisp of steam rising off it as a different beautiful person takes their first joyous bite. What you don’t see is the hours of kneading, the biscuits that didn’t rise, the baker throwing an empty container of salt when he thought he had enough left and cursing grandma because she had the gall to run ahead and die before she could give up her recipe. But you keep at it anyway. Then eventually you get some biscuits that taste okay. And then eventually you get some biscuits that taste great.
Before starting something new, the question would invariably pop up, “Can I make money doing this?” This is a terrible question to ask because the answer is usually “no.” It has also been the answer to, “Will I do it anyway?” I’ve always been able to acknowledge that people are granted success because of the persistence that comes from loving what you do. It’s only recently that I’ve been able act upon that knowledge.
In the interest of avoiding my get-rich-quick schemes, I one day said, “I am going to restore an old axe head, not because it will make me money, but because it seems like it’ll be fun.” And it was. There was an axe at my parents house that had been rusted over, painted over, then rusted over again. The layers of rust and paint were removed with alternating applications of vinegar and sandpaper. It was a trial and error process learning how the different abrasives took off material while leaving a desirable patina, how to shape a new handle for the specific shape of the eye in the axe head, and how to hone the edge. (I also learned that once you’ve sharpened the edge, it’s not good to grab it.) What had once been rote, tedious work suddenly became meditative and relaxing. To draw the wood rasp over the handle to shave off material, then check the fit takes time and a whole lot more patience. To find out three-quarters of the way through the resurfacing process that using a lubricant while sanding expedites everything was frustrating, but also invigorating. Rather than beating myself up for not knowing before, it made me excited because of how much more I could get done.
Much could be said about the many projects that I have started from scratch, whether restoring old hand tools, or helping establish my wife’s garden, or the non-profit I helped found. But they all share a common thread: I’ll have an idea for something, then start it despite not knowing what the hell I’m doing. When you don’t have any resources sitting in front of you to do something, you get creative. A giant, roughly flat hunk of wood became a workbench. Throw a ratchet strap and a Dremel on there, and you’ve got yourself a bench grinder. To say I have no resources would be disingenuous, so let me backtrack. I have less-than-ideal resources, and I can figure out how to make them work. And that is the point.
It could be easy to attribute any success in my endeavors to luck. It might also be easy to attribute success to something about bootstraps and pulling. I do think that the act of starting anything from scratch gives you a sense of appreciation that facilitates an attention to detail. The thing you save up to buy yourself always get treated better than the thing you were given.
All that to say, to find success when you start anything from scratch is to work with what you have: whether it is your God-given intelligence, whatever good fortune comes your way, ad hoc tools or workspaces, or tapping everyone around you for any scrap of wisdom about what you’re trying to accomplish. It is persistence in the face of failure, and it is reassessing what the hell “success” even means. I am not a rich man looking to get richer, at least in terms of money. To be proud of what you made; to be proud that you made anything at all; to take joy in the process of creation and of learning: these are the reasons to start something from scratch.