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7 Life Lessons You Can Learn From DIY Projects


I have a confession: I’m hopelessly addicted to do-it-yourself (DIY) projects.

Like most addictions, it started out simple enough: I’m going to patch that hole in the wall. Then, fresh off the high of no longer having to hire a handyman for basic fix-it projects, you start looking for your next high. I’m going to install a new thermostat. And then some new faucets. I’m going to take apart that motor and figure out what’s wrong with it. But that’s not enough. It never is.

To get the real DIY high, you need an element of risk. You need some danger. Enter plumbing, electrical work, and glorious power tools. Definitely some demolition. At least that’s how it happened with me. It started with a patched wall and somehow evolved into a garage full of tools for building furniture (some pictures of a few of my completed projects are shown below).

In all seriousness, there’s a unique satisfaction that comes from having fixed or built something to your precise, custom specifications, all by yourself. It’s liberating to know that if the you-know-what ever hits the fan, you’ll be able to handle it without having to hand over your firstborn and your life-savings to get a plumber out to your house at 2:00 a.m. to fix a busted pipe.

In addition to the obvious, concrete benefits of a successfully completed DIY project, there are a number of valuable life lessons embedded in the work. Here are 7 lessons that I’ve identified from several years’ worth of DIY work.

1. There Are No Shortcuts

One thing you quickly learn is that sometimes there’s just no fast or easy way to do a job right. There are an infinite number of ways to do a job fast and wrong, but the right way is often the long and painful one.

I recently ripped out some carpet and padding–easy enough–only to discover, and I’m not exaggerating here, at least eleventy billion carpet pad staples that needed to be pried out of the subfloor before it could be ready for a new pad and carpet. I looked high and low for the perfect, magical tool to help pull those things up in a matter of minutes (scrapers wouldn’t work in this particular case), but that tool unfortunately doesn’t exist. Instead, I had to pry each one out individually, one by one, with diagonal cutting pliers.

There are times in life when a quality job simply calls for a lot of thankless, time-consuming grunt work, where the only reward is knowing that you did what you had to do to get the job done right. Quite often, you’ll be the only one who knows how hard a particular job or task was. But the reward is knowing that you got it right.

Cutting Board

2. The Details Are Everything

Do you know what the difference is (excluding sheer size) between a run-of-the-mill house and the stunning homes you see on TV and in the movies? The details. At their core, all homes are pretty much the same: foundation, plus 2×4’s, plus joists and rafters, plus subfloors, plus wiring and plumbing, plus drywall. That’s pretty much it. And then you add all the finishes and details. It’s that fine detail work that makes a room or a home pop. It’s the gorgeous floor, plus the trim, plus the tile work, plus the landscaping, all tied together. And then there are the details within details: the cabinetry that perfectly matches all the trim work, the perfect hand sawn cope joint, the furniture that fits the period detail in the home, and so on.

The details are also the things that you immediately notice when they’re not done right. There’s the wall paint that bled into the ceiling and the trim, the carpet with a visible seam, the floor that you can tell is not perfectly level. Attention to detail is what separates the true artist and the true craftsman from the guy or gal who just wants to get the job done and out of the way. In life, the ability to get the little details right is what sets you apart. There will be a few times when your precise detail work might not be noticed, but there are even more times when lack of attention to detail will come back to haunt you.

3. Measure Twice, Cut Once

Nothing is more frustrating in woodworking than cutting a pricey piece of lumber and finding out it’s half an inch too short. Measure your cuts, then measure them again. Then double-check to make sure the measurement is right. Then measure again. Only then, when you’re a million percent confident you’ve got it right, make the cut. Don’t guess, don’t assume, don’t tell yourself you can always tweak it a little if you mess it up.

In other words, be sure that you’ve got it right. This lesson holds true in virtually every aspect of life. Lawyers, double-check those citations. Accountants, double-check those t-accounts. Copy editors, double-check those articles. Parents, make sure those kiddos are buckled up. There’s zero harm in double-checking and making sure you’ve got everything right before you make a decision that can’t be reversed.

Work Bench

4. There’s No Substitute For Experience

YouTube is probably the greatest thing to have ever happened to the DIY community. You can find step-by-step walkthroughs of every project imaginable. It’s incredible.

However, as helpful as YouTube is, it’s no substitute for having done the job before. Every project has its own little nuances that you can only understand via experience: knowing just the right amount of glue for a joint, understanding how to calculate the miter cuts for trim pieces, recognizing the sound a saw makes when you push through a piece of wood at just the right speed. Sure, you can read up on how to do all that and watch the videos and talk to the experts, but the right feel of a job can only come from actually doing the job. Usually, once you’ve done it once, you can do it a whole lot faster (and better) the next time.

Other jobs and tasks are no different. You can explain the ins and outs of a particular job to new hires until you’re hoarse, but they won’t be able to master it until they actually do it. This is a lesson that is often lost on the Google generation, which has a tendency to believe that reading about something online is the same as truly understanding it.

5. You Can’t Hide Shoddy Work

It doesn’t matter if the work is under a floor, behind a wall, or hidden by a coat of paint. Shoddy, substandard work can never be hidden. Something will eventually go wrong, the veneer will be ripped away, and somebody will eventually see it.

My grandfather was an electrician, and his electrical layouts were a work of art. There were no rats’ nests of wire anywhere. In his breaker boxes, every wire came into the box going straight up or down and into the actual breaker at a perfect right angle. Wires in a crawl space or attic were always parallel to the joists, stapled at precise intervals, and neatly stacked so each wire could clearly be seen. When something needed to be replaced, you didn’t need to spend an hour untangling a mess of wire just to figure out which one went to which outlet.

He didn’t do the work like this because he wanted it to be celebrated by others. He did it because it was the best, cleanest way to complete a job. Now, it wasn’t the easiest, or the fastest (see lesson #1 above), but it was the best.

In real life, if you cut corners, take shortcuts, or skimp on effort just to get a job done, it will eventually be noticed. It may take days, months, years, or even decades. But the corners you cut will eventually come it light. And those shortcuts won’t reflect well on your abilities or your character.

End Table

6. It’s Okay To Ask For Help

You can’t know everything, and you can’t do everything yourself. Some projects need an extra pair of hands or legs. Some require knowledge or experience you just don’t have. And sometimes you just need somebody there to keep you company or encourage you as you work.

Life and relationships are no different. At some point, everyone needs a little help from their friends. That’s not just okay, it’s perfectly normal. So don’t ever be afraid to ask for a little help.

7. Consider The Cost Of Your Time

This one’s a biggie. Like many DIYers, I love how much money you can save by just doing stuff yourself. Those savings come at a cost, though, and that cost is your time. Just like outsourced home projects usually end up costing more than you assumed, DIY projects always take longer than you think. Always. Especially projects where you’re doing an unfamiliar task. Everything takes longer than you think it will. You’ll always end up making more trips to Lowe’s or Home Depot than you planned.

Sure, you’re keeping a little more cash in your family’s pocket, but in many cases, you’re also taking time away from them. So don’t just consider the monetary benefit of doing DIY work. Consider the time cost, too. You can always earn more money, but you can’t get that time back.