What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

To be honest, I thought using a butter knife to apply diaper cream was a clever solution. Unfortunately, not all our innovative workarounds proved as successful. A good example was during the summer of 1997, when Nicholas and I were part of a construction crew building a new pig barn near our home. 

The team was responsible for the barn’s concrete foundation, floors and walls. And our days quickly took on a predictable routine. In the morning, we’d use interlocking wooden forms to create a mould for a new section of wall or floor. After lunch, the cement truck would arrive and fill those moulds with wet cement. Once they hardened, we’d go and peel off the forms and start the process all over.

One day, our foreman Paul told us to pry off the forms from a recently poured section of floor. Seeing that this job would require more than my bare hands, I strolled over to the tool trailer and found myself a crowbar. Nicholas, however, decided that the twenty-second walk to the trailer was far too arduous and opted instead to make use of whatever tools he had available within arm’s reach. 

The first tool on hand? Giant pickaxe.

Nicholas heaved the hefty tool into position, wiggling one point of the axe between the wooden frame and the concrete. He was close but couldn’t quite wedge it in far enough to get the leverage needed to pop the board off. 

To accomplish that, he’d need to pound the pickaxe further down. Enter tool number two: giant sledgehammer.

Nicholas steadied the end of the pickaxe in one hand and grabbed the sledgehammer in the other. Then, like a hard-hatted (and hard-headed) Norse god of thunder, he hoisted his mighty hammer aloft. I cringed as the sledgehammer swung swiftly down.

Unfortunately, instead of the metallic clang you’d expect from metal striking metal, all I heard was a dull, stomach-churning thud. Somehow, my brother had managed to smash his thumb between the sledgehammer and the pointy tip of the pickaxe. 

Nicholas shuddered as he dropped his ill-chosen tools and grabbed his now-mangled hand. His face contorted in pain. His mouth gaped open, but no sound came out, either from shock or embarrassment or both.

Paul — who had also witnessed the incident — wandered over to check on his moron of an employee who clearly could use immediate medical attention. “How’s your thumb?” he asked, his tone more mocking than empathetic.

“Oh, pretty sore,” Nicholas replied. It was a masterclass in understatement.

Whether you’re building a barn, getting in shape for a marathon or tackling a big project at work, the right tools make all the difference. As Nicholas discovered, using the wrong ones for a job can end up wasting more time — and causing more pain — than if you had done it right in the first place.

Sure, grabbing the sledgehammer and pickaxe sitting next to him saved him a trip to the tool shed. But in the end, his half-assery just led to a demolished thumb and a job poorly done. 

Equipping myself with the right tools was key during my cancer treatment. Taking the subway to and from the hospital was an option, but not advisable because of my compromised immune system. So instead, I borrowed a car from a friend to get to my appointments. 

Getting enough to eat was important but at times challenging, as I discovered while barfing out that hamburger Norm brought me. Taking the time to find chemo-friendly recipes and cookbooks made a world of difference.

And when I felt my anxiety levels spike, I learned to use the guided meditation CD my roommate Rob had given me rather than curl into a ball in bed with the lights out.

Whatever obstacle you’re facing, take the time to identify what tools might help you through it. What tools do you have at your disposal? Are they the right ones? What other resources might help you succeed, and how can you get your hands on them? 

If you’re dealing with back pain, see if your HR department offers ergonomic assessments. If your productivity is flagging, find a workspace with fewer distractions. If your relationship is on the rocks, consider couple’s therapy.

And when the job calls for a crowbar, use a friggin’ crowbar.


Next: Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

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Chapter 1 — The coin flip: What a cancer diagnosis taught me about life exploding into a bazillion pieces

Chapter 2 — The slip-up: What a puddle of puke taught me about asking for help

Chapter 3 — The Great Burning: What a million paper monsters taught me about things going up in smoke

Chapter 4 — The crayon candle: What the lamest science project ever taught me about putting in the extra effort

Chapter 5 — The Christmas concert: What starring as a tree taught me about finding my voice

Chapter 6 — The “Super Something:” What blood and glue fumes taught me about vulnerability

Chapter 7 — The dare: What wearing a clay helmet taught me about bad habits

Chapter 8 — The cannonball: What Meghan in the mud taught me about letting go

Chapter 9 — The fireball: What a flaming tennis ball taught me about nurturing imagination

Chapter 10 — The frying pan: What towel-snapping taboos taught me about pushing your luck

Chapter 11 — The haybale: What a tough day in the barn taught me about having someone to watch your back

Chapter 12 — The babysitting gig: What banshee babies and buttered butts taught me about failing forward

Chapter 13 — The sledgehammer: What a construction job taught me about using the right tools

Chapter 14 — The cement truck: What a misguided act of heroism taught me about good intentions

Chapter 15 — The valet: What a parking disaster taught me about overconfidence

Chapter 16 — The growl: What a wolf in the woods taught me about knowledge and responsibility

Chapter 17 — The shortcut: What a hike through stinging nettles taught me about cutting corners

Chapter 18 — The backpack: What a giant duffel bag taught me about band-aid solutions

Chapter 19 — The big freeze: What camping in a snowstorm taught me about knowing when to quit

Chapter 20 — The snowy gauntlet: What an idiotic bet taught me about redefining success

Chapter 21 — The Christmas tree: What a holiday hunt taught me about overkill

Chapter 22 — The BB gun: What my dad getting shot in the eye taught me about owning up to our mistakes

Chapter 23 — The toboggan hill: What sledding battles taught me about approaching problems from different angles

Chapter 24 — The train: What a trip to the big city taught me about self-sabotage

Chapter 25 — The mushy cauliflower: What dinner in France taught me about the power of words

Chapter 26 — The shopping cart: What an unusual ride to the bar taught me about control

Chapter 27 — The butt clay: What a muddy gully battle taught me about karma

Chapter 28 — The president: What Bill Clinton getting in my way taught me about adaptability

Chapter 29 — The Taipei middle way: What a hostile hostel taught me about moderation

Chapter 30 — The refugee camp: What volunteering in Ghana taught me about digging deeper

Chapter 31 — The bus ride: What a long drive through the mountains taught me about patience

Chapter 32 — The barn: What a Christmas sleepover taught me about keeping your fires stoked

Chapter 33 — The list: What farts and sandwiches taught me about gratitude

Chapter 34 — The birthday: What a surprise celebration in the hospital taught me about self-care

Chapter 35 — The goodbye: What a man named Frank taught me about luck

Chapter 36 — The bloody transformation: What going from negative to positive taught me about change

Chapter 37 — The school of hard knocks: What life’s misadventures taught me about blunderful resilience