He was just the most recent messenger of an idea that came from long ago. It's difficult to say how many of my family's fathers have passed along this axiom to their sons or daughters, but when my dad said it to me, it meant something.
Lunch came and went, along with the cooler temperatures of the morning. The sun snuck out from behind the clouds, burned the dew off of the grass, and drove up the mercury in the thermometer that hung on our back porch.
We walked out the screen door and behind me I heard my dad say something to Josh, catching only the end of the comment. “And take Matt and Sam with you to help load it up,” Dad directed his oldest foreman. I did the math in my head. 6-3=3. My mom, my dad, and myself. So much for gophering. I was going to work… actual work.
“Joe! Put that tool belt on and go get some nails.” I’d already proven myself a blind follower of orders, so I hopped up and ran to where Nate left his tool belt and found the box of nails beside it. I moved quickly, but so did my stomach. I’d hammered in nails before, though admittedly, only on scrap wood and never in an attempt to actually hold boards together or maintain the integrity of a structure. I was scared. I didn’t know how to do what my dad was about to ask me to do: build something.
Dad had already pulled a board from the pile and began to place it near the ground where we’d be fastening it to two posts that my brothers had set in the ground the previous day. He held one end, positioning it, and I aped his movements as best I could, trying to make it as level as possible.
I had graduated from gopher to holder for the time being. This is not a large step, but it was one that made me nervous nonetheless.
“Hold on to that while I nail this in.” Dad offered instructions that seemed simple enough to follow, and so I held the board as I had been doing while he unholstered his hammer and pulled a nail from his mouth. He tapped the nail into the board slightly and I felt a subtle vibration climb into my hands. This isn’t that bad I thought, and just as my confidence level was rising, an earthquake hit my palms and I jumped back, dropping the board from its position on the post. Dad had hammered the nail in what I can assume is the only way a nail can be hammered, thunderously and accurately. But the board failed to hold because the weight of the other end, the end I was now looking at from a distance, pulled it to the ground.
My eyes jetted to my father’s face, unsure of what his reaction would be. I was sure that I be relegated to trash pick up. No more than a beat or two went by before I’d get his response.
“Get it back up there.”
I hesitated. I’d already experience the initial frustration of failure. This is a stinging feeling that many know and discussed often. The sensation that’s not talked about as much is the confusion of what to do regarding the initial failure. “How do I hold it?” I cringed even as I asked. How do I hold it? Even now, that seems like a stupid question.
Dad’s response was, as I should’ve expected, a simple one. “Just put it up there and hold it.”
Dad seemed to have, and know how to use, every tool I could imagine.
This is the parent equivalent of asking someone to define a word and the person uses to the word in the definition. “What’s confused mean?” “Oh you know, when you’re confused about something.” “Ohhhhh, okay! Thanks. That’s helpful.”
I didn’t dare question dad’s method of explanation though, so I did as I was told. I put the board back in its place, but this time I held on for dear life. I was holding on the same way you hold on when you’re on a roller coaster and your harness feels like it didn’t completely lock shut.
It worked. The earthquake I’d felt before, when I was holding the board casually, was a mere inconvenience now. It had nothing on my own body weight and focused concentration. As dad drove another nail, a sense of relief washed over me. It was short lived.
“Get your hammer and put a nail in your end.” As I’ve mentioned before, my hammering consisted mostly of grabbing the tool with both hands and swinging blindly at a board that was sitting on the ground with a nail already sticking half way out. I wasn’t what you’d call a master craftsman.
“How am I suppose to do it?” Again, these questions seem ridiculous now that I’ve driven ten thousand nails, but at the time, it was a legitimate inquiry. It was one that dad felt obliged to answer in the most ambiguous way possible.
“Just nail it in there.” I began to sense a trend in the way dad expected me to learn: on my own. I wasn’t happy about it. I liked doing things right. I got As in school because I was shown how to do something and I did it like I was shown.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” I admitted, half frustrated, half angry, half confused. I know. I know. But I was a kid who hadn’t learned fractions yet, and that’s how I felt!
My dad, an everyman’s sage, delivered in that moment a teaching that I heard many times growing up. I’m sure my brother’s had heard it already, and I’m sure my children will hear it from their me one day in the future.
“Do something, even if it’s wrong.” It came out of his mustached mouth casually, but the content clearly had history. He was just the most recent messenger of an idea that came from long ago. It’s difficult to say how many of my family’s fathers have passed along this axiom to their sons or daughters, but when my dad said it to me, it meant something. It wasn’t just a “brush your teeth in the morning” or “clean out your ears or you’ll grow potatoes in there” rule. I was only 9, I was bad at fractions, and I got the least amount of gravy for my biscuits, but I knew well enough to let that advice soak in for a long while.
My “soak” lasted about two seconds before my dad reminded me that we had a board to put up. I took out my hammer, placed a on the board where it needed to be, and tapped it just enough to get it started into the wood.
I’d love say that a ray of sun from the heavens shone on me and that I drove that nail straight and true and I was on my way.
It didn’t. I didn’t. I wasn’t.
The rest of that afternoon and early evening, I turned straight nails into the mathematical less than sign. This, |, became this, <, more times than I care to admit. The hammer slipped out of my hand twice. Dad or Josh or Matt, and unfortunately sometimes even Mom, had to pull out nails, whose placement couldn’t even be explained by physics, that I had hammered.
My forearms burned. Sometimes I had to use two hands. But I kept doing something. By the end of the day, I could hold any board steady, I was bending fewer and fewer nails. I could tack a board to a post from two steps up on the ladder. When Dad told me to climb the big ladder to get up on the roof so that Sam could hand me a needed tool, I didn’t ask how. I just did it.
When I was very little, I didn’t understand fear of the unknown. It never occurred to me that there may be judgment from others when I failed after trying something for the first time. But at the beginning of adolescence, I became aware that it was unpleasant to be bad at something. I didn’t want be like the kids who couldn’t memorize their multiplication tables or write their spelling words. I was good at these things and found comfort in being successful. Comfort however, can often create fear. Anything outside of comfort allows for the possibility of failure, and I had learned that that was bad.
"SUCCESS CAN BE DANGEROUS- YOU FEEL YOU KNOW IT ALL. I'VE LEARNED A GREAT DEAL FROM MY FAILURES."
Like many lessons that I learned in my youth, there are shades of grey, nuances that can’t be understood until later. Failure is not good. It’s better to be good at something than to be bad at something. I still agree with that. But, building the barn with my family shed light on a certain nuance. There’s a learning curve. It didn’t matter if I bent a nail and had to pull it back out as long as I eventually put a nail through that board and fastened it to the post. It didn’t matter if I had never stood 30 feet above the ground before. I could take as long as I needed to get up the ladder, as long as I got myself to the top.
Fear of failure that creates inaction is crippling. I think of all the enjoyment and pride that I might have missed out on because of this fear. I wouldn’t have ridden my first roller coaster when Josh offered to ride with me, a memory I reference every time I’m anxiously waiting in line for another coaster.
I wouldn’t have tried out for tennis when I started high school. The sport is an active chess match, and the movement, exercise, and strategy allow me to keep my mind and body sharp.
I wouldn’t have bought and remodeled my own house, which is now a home to my wife and our dog and our shared memories. About once a month we stop and look around at what we’ve built together and pride washes over us. There’s also excitement in knowing what we’ll build together in the future.
I understand why my dad kept working in his nicer, newer jeans. New jeans show no wear, no experience, and no mistakes. When his initial intentions were good, I think my dad was proud of the mistakes he made. I think he wore his mistakes, often literally. Dad gained experience in the best way, and now I’m convinced the only way, that one can gain experience: action.
As I look back at my 9 year old self, I’m proud. I’m proud that I did something.
Even today, I’m doing. I didn’t know how to be a teacher, but I educate. I didn’t know how to be a husband, but I got married. I don’t know how to be a father, but I will one day. When that day comes, maybe I’ll have a son. Maybe one that doesn’t know how to hold a board. Or use a hammer. Or build a barn.
The new barn still standing today.