Hands, July 2011
I’ve know Bill Nye for a good long time. He started posting on HeatingHelp.com back when the site was still wet behind its ears. He signed in as Bill “Not the Science Guy” Nye. It must be fun to share a name with someone who is somewhat famous. I’ll bet it’s easier to get reservations for dinner.
Bill is a superb technician of the old-school variety. I think he can fix anything. He owns and races a classic car, and loves to tell about it, even when he blows the engine and has to start all over again.
He once quit a job because his boss wouldn’t let him take the time off to come to one of my seminars. Bill thought that the boss would have gained by having him be just a bit sharper than he already was, and when the boss disagreed, Bill lost respect for him and left. He doesn’t take nonsense from anyone.
Bill Nye is a quiet, thoughtful man, and a very good listener. I think he’d rather listen than talk, but when he has something to say, I sit up and pay close attention. He recently posted this on the Wall at HeatingHelp.com, and I wanted to share it with you because I think it’s simply beautiful. There is truth here. Listen:
“The thing about working for a 65-year-old company is that you have old customers - old customers with old houses and old stuff in their basements. I can be in five or six basements in one day, so I see a lot of stuff.
“You can tell a great deal about a man by the stuff in his basement. These old-timers always had tools and work benches, and you can tell that they used them. They probably made stuff and fixed stuff and painted and maintained stuff.
“The poor old guy almost always dies first, and the widow rarely goes down to the basement. The tools hang there and gather dust or rust, and then maybe get carried off, one by one. Then the widow passes on and some relative or neighbor will either cherish or discard this talented workman's lifelong collection of tools.
“In today's basements, you might see a pool table or unused exercise equipment, or empty cardboard boxes. Oh, and plastic toys, and laundry (lots of laundry). You never see laundry undone in an old person’s house.
“In today's world, no one needs handsaws or planes or table saws. Every old-timer had a table saw. Nothing is made from wood these days; it is all plastic. We don't paint. Everything is made of vinyl. Nothing gets fixed; it’s just thrown out in favor of new things.
“I was in two basements today that must have belonged to talented Dead Men. One must have built stairs, and the other must have been a carpenter or a builder. I really love old tools and wish I could have spent time talking to these old guys before they left with all that talent and knowledge. I am really feeling bad about the direction we are going. Most of the kids today would not even know what these tools were for. The stair-builder guy also had three or four of the gasoline-fueled plumber’s torches. Could you imagine soldering all day long with one of those?
“God bless them. I miss them.”
How’s that for random thoughts from the basement on some pretty routine service calls? There’s a beauty to life, and to the lives that others have lived, and Bill Nye sees that every day. I like quiet people who think, and then speak when they have something really good to say. That’s Bill.
His comment brought other comments, of course, and these, too, make me think. Charlie from Western Mass wrote:
“This is why we buy good tools. The 300 power threader is the same one my father used since it was new, as are the 14- to 48-inch wrenches I use. The smaller wrenches are new ones I added. They are all iron. I will not use aluminum wrenches. I know the benefits of aluminum, but I am not interested. Iron feels better to me.
“I have found estate sales as my favorite place to visit in the summer months. The old timers also knew how to sharpen those handsaws so they actually cut easy and straight.”
Iron feels better to me. Are you listening to that?
What are you selling? Tools are functional, sure, but do you ever think about how they heft in the hand? Many of your customers sure do. Emotions play a part in what we buy. You know this is true.
Mike Kusiak, who posts regularly, wrote this:
“A lot of us here grew up being exposed to tools and mechanical equipment from an early age, and I am certain it had some effect regarding our future professions. My concern is that today, most kids are not able to have these experiences. Our kids are living in a virtual world, isolated from craftsmanship and the experience of creating physical objects with their hands.
“When I was in junior high school it was required to take industrial arts ‘shop’ classes, regardless of whether you were taking an academic college-prep curriculum, or planning on going into a trade. At least all kids were exposed to the realities of how things worked and how things were made. Nowadays, the shop courses have been replaced by computer courses, but the students are not taught even how to open the computer case. Something is missing.
“My background is in engineering, and having supervised many young engineers, I have found that the most-promising and successful of them had one thing in common – an early exposure to building things with their hands and solving problems. Without this insight, it is much more difficult to successfully create a design that is practical and able to be easily manufactured.
“I hope that our educators will take such things into consideration. If they don’t, we may never again be able to compete as successful manufacturers in a global market.”
Not all of them, but many of the people who buy from you have emotional attachments to the work, and to the tools that they hold in their hands. They’re proud people and there is opportunity there if you can hear what they’re saying and understand its significance in the market.
Years ago, I sat alone on a porch in Victorian Cape May, New Jersey. It was a summer’s day and I was nursing a good, cold beer when I looked up and saw the way these three beams mitered together over there in the corner. The wood looked to be hand-hewn, and it was so out of the way that you had to look for it to see it. And it was perfect the way those three beams came together. A craftsman had done that work. Few could see it, but I didn’t think that mattered to him. He did it perfectly because he could.
I picked up a pen and wrote these words:
A hundred years from now, they will gaze upon my work and marvel at my skills and never know my name. And that will be good enough for me.
We put those words on a tee shirt and sold thousands of them.
Are you listening when they speak to you of such things? There’s opportunity there. There truly is.
Last thought: Get a copy of Matthew B. Crawford’s brilliant book, Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. Go to Amazon.com and see what it’s about. I guarantee it will make you think, and it will help your business.