Instead of/in addition to …

“I’m here,” he announced, climbing out of his truck, “and ready to work!” The three of us were standing next to a skid of lumber when Rick showed up at the job site. He was wearing new coveralls and had around his waist a new tool belt loaded with a new hammer and tape measure. I wasn’t sure but I thought he had a new carpenter’s pencil in his breast pocket. He sauntered over and we all noticed his new steel-toed work boots.

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

— Benjamin Franklin, one of the founding fathers of the United States

“I’m here,” he announced, climbing out of his truck, “and ready to work!”

The three of us were standing next to a skid of lumber when Rick showed up at the job site. He was wearing new coveralls and had around his waist a new tool belt loaded with a new hammer and tape measure. I wasn’t sure but I thought he had a new carpenter’s pencil in his breast pocket. He sauntered over and we all noticed his new steel-toed work boots.

“You look ready to do some work,” noted the contractor.

“More than ready, chief,” he declared. “Let’s start building a house!”

I’d decided to earn some cash over my summer vacation so signed up as a helper on a home building project just outside of town. I knew the contractor — a small operator — and convinced him that I knew enough to be worthy of hiring. To be honest, I was pretty green but decided that if I could stay focused and take direction, I could likely learn something valuable.

Rick, on the other hand, seemed to think he was already an expert of sorts — a master carpenter without certification. I’d seen some of Rick’s projects and they’d left much to be desired.

The wobbly picnic table, the stooping shed and the poorly supported deck. I had mentioned to Rick about the job and he immediately wanted to be on the crew. I knew he needed money, so I reluctantly mentioned his name to the contractor. Being desperate for help, he hired Rick on.

It seemed that Rick had an opinion on everything: tools, techniques and the trades. On the second day, he showed up with his own mitre saw — an expensive model with a laser guide. Later in the week he brought in his own framing nailer, contractor grade. It seemed that Rick had all the best tools but little if any know-how. We were all grateful when on day five Rick fell off a stepladder and twisted his knee. He apologized profusely for having to abandon what he considered his crew.

“Another example of ‘instead of’ rather than ‘in addition to,’” said the contractor.

Some people, like Rick, will spend a tremendous amount of time researching the tools of a particular craft yet little time learning the art. I recall — years ago — developing an interest in photography and buying an expensive (for the time) 35-mm camera.

I was dismayed when the pictures didn’t look any better than those taken with my cheap instamatic.

Like Rick, “instead of” learning and honing my skills, I invested money into buying tools that were beyond my skill set. Buying tools was not a mistake, but I should have done it “in addition to” learning about the craft. I thought the tools alone would somehow make me an expert.

When we buy the tools first, we’re investing in the external. I’ve come to realize that a skilled carpenter can do more with a hammer and handsaw than a newbie ever could with the best power tools. A skilled photographer will capture more engaging images with a simple camera than I ever could with an expensive setup. And I’ve learned something else: when you hone your craft first, you often have a much better idea of what tools you’ll need to succeed.

And this truth applies to more than home-building or photography — it applies to self-esteem.

Good tools are complementary vehicles to personal growth. But alone, they do not make you an expert. I’ve known people who have taken home armloads of books from the self-help section, spent hundreds of dollars on workshops or counselling, or plastered magnetized self-affirming plaques all over their fridges. But the expense was of no value when no effort was made to learn and practise the available teaching.

They didn’t finish reading the books, never thought again about the workshop after the final group photo, and never used the magnets for anything more than to pin up the children’s drawings.

That’s because the hard part, the commitment to learn and practise, must come first. Part of that commitment is admitting that there is in fact something to learn — that there is something more to do than buy the tools. When I began my journey of self-esteem building, it was with the admission that I was not an expert nor did I have many (if any) of the answers. I began my quest by speaking with empowered individuals and buying books they recommended, but further, applying what I read to my life. Later, I attended self-esteem workshops and lectures and even spent time with a professional life coach. I was acquiring tools but I was also committed to acquiring information and applying it. That was the real challenge: integrating all of this information into my life and learning to use my expanding collection of tools properly.

All of those external tools, systems and strategies matter, but they only make a difference (to any significant degree) when they exist “in addition to” and not “instead of.”

The biggest reason for our failures is assuming we know more than we really do. It’s failing to put forth the effort to learn the basic techniques necessary to put the tools to proper use.

We are equally capable of fueling our acceleration or stalling our progress under the weight of our own arrogance. Don’t be like Rick. If you want a life that is rich, rewarding and fulfilling, invest in self-knowledge and personal growth and then put every ounce of energy you have into practising what you have learned. It all starts with you. It always does. Forget the new tool belt or the sharp carpenter’s pencil. If you want to thrive, start by learning the skills necessary to live a dynamic, successful and empowered life.

“Quality is never an accident,” wrote English art critic and patron, John Ruskin. “It is always the result of intelligent effort.”

The most successful and fulfilled people among us build themselves through effort and ongoing learning — mastering the skills and knowledge needed to become experts in the art of living and, thus, beacons of hope, compassion, creativity, service and inspiration.

Murray Fuhrer is a self-esteem expert and facilitator. His recent book is entitled Extreme Esteem: The Four Factors. For more information on self-esteem, check the Extreme Esteem website at www.extremeesteem.ca.

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