The sledgehammer: What a summer job taught me about using the right tools

Back in 1997, my dad hooked me and my brother Nicholas up with summer jobs on a construction crew building a new pig barn near our home. As teenaged, pimple-faced manual labourers at the absolute bottom of the totem pole, our job was to suffer through whatever menial and unpleasant tasks our co-workers could think of.

Our crew was responsible for constructing the barn’s concrete foundation, floors and walls, and after a while our days took on a predictable routine. In the morning, we’d use interlocking wooden forms to create a mould for a new wall. After lunch, the cement truck would arrive and fill those moulds with wet cement. Once they hardened, we’d go and peel off the wooden boards and start the process all over.

One day, Nicholas and I were told to pry the forms off of a recently poured corridor 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 20-second walk to the trailer was far too arduous and opted instead to make use of whatever tools were within arms-reach.

The first tool on hand?  Giant pickaxe.

Nicholas heaved the hefty tool into position, wiggling one point of it behind the wooden frame. He was close, but couldn’t quite wedge it in far enough to get the leverage he needed to pop the board off. 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. Like a hard-hatted (and hard-headed) Norse god of thunder, he hoisted his mighty hammer aloft, gripping the handle near the head for better control. I cringed as the sledgehammer swung swiftly down, finding its mark.

But 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.

Picture the profanity-inducing pain that comes with hitting your thumb with a regular hammer. Now multiply that by a hundred. 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.

Our foreman, 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 in what had to be the understatement of the century.

That night, Mom used popsicle sticks to set Nicholas’s broken thumb and sent him back to work the next morning to see what other bones he could break.

Tools of the trade

Whether you’re building a barn, getting in shape for a marathon or tackling a personal challenge, the right tools make all the difference. Oftentimes, using the wrong tool 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 Nicholas a trip to the tool shed. But in the end, his half-assery just led to a mangled thumb and a job poorly done.

Finding the right tools was key during my cancer treatment. Taking the subway to and from the hospital was an option, but not advisable considering my immune-compromised state. Instead, I was able to borrow a car from a friend to get to my appointments.

Getting enough to eat was super important, but at times super challenging as I realized while barfing out a hamburger a friend 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 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. 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.

Before tackling a challenge, ask yourself some questions. What tools do you have at your disposal? Are they the right ones? What else might help you succeed? Because attacking a problem with a pickaxe may sound good in theory.

But with a bit of thought, you’re bound to find better tools for the job that don’t result in a smooshed thumb.

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Cancer reminded me that life is the greatest teacher of all. The following stories share obstacle-busting lessons from some of life’s other awesome and absurd moments — from sleeping in a barn to multiple run-ins with Bill Clinton’s bodyguards to nearly driving a car off a cliff.