The Inner Life of a Contractor, Part 2: Why you need a craftsman’s heart
“The craftsmanship I’m talking about here is possible given any budget and any time constraints.”
By Steve Maxwell
Most of the sane and successful contractors I know have one thing in common. They take craftsmanship seriously. Craftsmanship is the extent to which a person aims towards perfection in any venture involving hands-on workmanship. It’s a product of skill, knowledge, experience and effort, and while craftsmanship pays off for the client, it also seems to pay off for the craftsman. At least that’s what I’ve noticed. Why else would the most satisfied contractors I see all pursue craftsmanship seriously? Why is it that the failing, frazzled and frustrated contractors I see seem to have no idea what craftsmanship is and where the impulse to aim for it comes from?
The craftsmanship I’m talking about here – the kind that sustains the craftsman on the inside – is possible given any budget and any time constraints. It’s not about having the best materials to work with, an open-ended schedule nor an amazing client. These things are usually out of your control as a contractor and hardly ever happen in the real world anyway. You can’t count on them. No, in my experience, the craftsmanship that sustains comes from a belief that human beings were made for a better world than we find ourselves in. We’re not just an accidental collection of molecules on a ball of rock hurtling through space. There is such a thing as absolute right and wrong, and there is such a thing as good work and bad work. When I build things with craftsmanship in mind, I’m aiming to bring one tiny part of the world I’m in charge of into better alignment with the perfect world of beauty and permanence. In 30 years of working professionally with my hands, I’ve found nothing more inwardly sustaining than this one goal – to work towards the kind of world I wish I lived in.
If all this sounds wispy and sensitive, I agree. But isn’t it also true that many times in life it’s the little things that matter most – especially the little things in your mind and heart? These are the places where the battle for joy and sanity are won or lost. Sure, you’ve got jobs to complete and deadlines to meet. You often have to struggle with bad situations, challenging clients and marginal labour. Subs can be difficult to deal with and Canadian winters don’t make any of this easier. Cash doesn’t always flow as quickly as it should, and the government red tape machine is spewing out business-killing directives full blast. All the more reason to aim for excellence to the extent that your circumstances allow it. Don’t do it primarily for the client (as much as they’ll appreciate it), do it for yourself. When you walk away from the tools at the end of the day, close the door on your truck and sit for a minute while the engine warms before you head home, you can take pride and satisfaction knowing that the work you did that day is as good as you could make it.
In one way every craftsmanship decision you make will be unique because no two building circumstances are exactly alike. But in another way, every craftsmanship decision is the same because they all come down to the same choice: “Will I do what’s easier here and now, or what moves this project a little closer to the ideal of beauty, durability and efficiency?” The reason your answer to this question matters is because it takes more than profits to be a good and balanced contractor. Money and success are vital, but sustained success and inner satisfaction as a contractor takes something else, too. I believe it takes a craftsman’s heart. If you have no idea what I’m talking about here, then perhaps you should find another line of work. Working as a contractor without some inner drive to do good work is a miserable way to make a living. And when I look around and see contractors that are financially successful, in high demand and deep-down happy, I see people who pursue the craftsmanship that sustains.
If you missed the first part of The Inner Life of a Contractor, you can find it here.