Doing real things

Getting your hands dirty on the job can teach invaluable skills.


Photo courtesy: John SuzukidaLast summer, I took on a project to install new siding and a new roof for a small shed, which was probably last done about when President Kennedy announced we were going to the moon. That kind of project gives you a little time to think, but most of the time I was cutting, nailing, staining, and painting. Since then, every time I walk by it, I experience an-out-of-proportion amount of pleasure for what it took, prompting the question: Why is that? Is a tangible sense of accomplishment so unusual that it is that satisfying? 

In our daily lives, it’s easy to become virtual, communicating by e-mail and social media, catching sports scores and news, etc. With such a high percentage of our lives spent on the computer, a tangible sense of accomplishment can be evasive, even after working all day. Actually making or doing something is, of course, behind the pleasure of many hobbies—if you’re fortunate enough to have such hobbies and can make time for them.

Photo courtesy: John SuzukidaThe point of all this is that if you’re a person who doesn’t have a regular feeling of tangible accomplishment like you would get in the trades, for example, getting more actively involved in anything can make you more effective. A heavy dose of reality comes when you’re the one cutting or nailing or painting, not just project managing those who do. It’s easy to sit in the bleachers, critiquing and observing what is being done, right or wrong. It’s far different to be on the field trying to make things happen. To this point, a quote from Theodore Roosevelt is prominently posted above my computer monitor as a constant reminder to do real things and not fall into the trap of observing from afar: 

It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat. 

The nature of many of our jobs is that we are often not the ones in the field or in the factory, selling, servicing, or making things. You may be in the boardroom, headquarters, or anywhere else in which you are by nature working, removed from the field of action. To help you more effectively interact with others in ways that are relevant, here are some things to consider:

  • Don’t hesitate to “get your hands dirty” in anything; it will help keep your perspectives real and practical in all that you do.
  • As much as is practical, spend time with people who do the real work. One day in the office with a person who estimated, designed, and managed controls projects and a day in the field with an installer taught me invaluable insights during a transition from the HVAC field to controls. It wasn’t about becoming an expert; it was about understanding the business from project realities.
  • Organizations such as Engineers without Borders and Habitat for Humanity are just two of thousands of organizations that need tangible actions that your training and time can provide.


John Suzukida was Trane’s senior VP of global marketing and strategy prior to founding Lanex Consulting in 2002, which focuses on strategic planning and product-to-solutions business model transitions. He has a BSME and Distinguished Alumnus Award from the University of Illinois. He was a presenter at the 2012 Career Smart Engineers Conference.

Liana , United States, 10/29/13 11:00 AM:

Thanks for such an inspiring piece! I forwarded the link to a Technical High School Superintendent I know to remind him that he teaches students to recognize that tangible sense of accomplishment each day.
Anonymous , 10/30/13 04:47 PM:

John Suzukida was spot on with his article "Doing Real Things". My career as an Architect began from a "hands-on" approach of building - starting with Tinkertoys and Erector Sets to building sheds, barns and road construction in my high school years. After nearly 40 years in practice, I have not seen anyone who can work up a section or detail better than an experienced apprentice. The working knowledge just flows through your hands to the drawing.
WALTER , CA, United States, 05/27/14 02:19 PM:

Good points... "personally doing something" and being on the ground with those who are doing things... Contact with the real world is inspiring (sometimes frustrating) and important.
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