In many facets of life, we strive to improve ourselves. Maybe you want to run a faster 5K, or read more books, or visit a place you’ve never been. And yet, when it comes to home or automotive projects, we tend to reach a point of stasis. Even if you’re handy, there’s a fear that can discourage you from trying.
I say, be brave. Tackle that project you don’t think you could possibly handle. What’s the worst that could happen? Okay, don’t think about that, because the answer might be electrocution, fire, or toilet geysers, possibly all at once. But the upside is a sense of accomplishment that is pure and unadulterated and probably all out of proportion to whatever you did. I’m not sure Thomas Edison’s first flick of a light switch felt any more exuberant than mine after I installed my first fixture. I did it! I’m still alive, the lights work, and I didn’t have to call a guy! It’s an addictive feeling, I tell you, and now I chase it all the time. For better and worse.
Sometimes, it’s a small thing. When our air conditioner crapped out, the HVAC guy traced the problem to a condensate pump that was no longer pumping. “I’ve got one in my van,” he said. “$300.” Now, I know nothing about the price of condensate pumps. I do not trade condensate pump futures on the pump market. But that sounded like way too much. “I think I’ll just go get one myself,” I said, feeling my stomach knot as the words tumbled out of my mouth. “Okay,” he said. “Good luck.” And it turned out I had some, because when I unboxed the random pump from my local True Value, it was the exact model of the dead one in my crawl space. I plugged it in, the AC roared to life, and I duck-walked as fast as I could out of there so I could go brag to my wife about how I fixed something. That was a minor triumph.
My friend Louis tends to go bigger. Way bigger. When he didn’t like the contractor quotes he got on a swimming pool, he said, “A pool is just a hole in the ground with some plumbing. I can build a pool.” Which is kind of like looking at the Acropolis and saying, “It just needs a little masonry.” One would expect that this story ends with a misshapen muddy hole in the backyard, littered with PVC pipe and broken dreams, but no. The pool turned out spectacular. And I should know, because I helped dig it. One weekend, Louis called and said, “Do you know how to drive a Bobcat?” Of course, I told him, though I didn’t. But you don’t want to tell the guy who’s building his own pool that you don’t know how to do something. An hour later, I was lurching around in the pit trying to remember which pedal does what. I figured it out and spent a couple of days haltingly scooping dirt. Louis later returned the favor by helping me expand my deck, projects begetting projects.
Now, occasionally, you will hit an impasse that requires calling in a professional. And they will not be happy to get involved with your ineptitude. You attempted to usurp their expertise, and now you plead for it? The gall. “Half my business is YouTube heroes who figure, ‘Hey, I can install my own lift kit,’ and then screw it up and come to me to fix it,” says my friend Keith, who owns an off-roading shop. For professionals like him who regularly deal with amateur hackery, I hope there’s at least some satisfaction in reprimanding us for our idiocy.
When I installed my Nest thermostat (incorrectly), the technician who showed up didn’t try to hide his exasperation. “I get calls for these all the time,” he said. “You know, it’s not always as easy as pulling the wires off the old thermostat and plugging them into the new one.” Uh, yeah, tell me about it. Even though he was clearly affronted by my HVAC hubris, the end result was a win-win: He got paid to fix my bungled installation, and I prostrated myself in shame. Everything turned out fine. Perhaps I should have called him in the first place, but as the old saying goes, You don’t know you’re not good at HVAC until you turn down the thermostat and your floor vents start blowing air that feels plumbed straight from the earth’s molten core.
Other projects fared better. The kids’ treehouse. My Bronco’s radiator and heater core. The pendant lights and the tile and toilets. I didn’t know how to do any of that until I tried. Lately, I’ve been thinking about paving my driveway myself. What is pavement, anyway? Just a bunch of wet rocks that you smooth out and then dry. I can handle that. And if I can’t, I’ve got my apology ready to go.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics