On carpentry and college

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  October 20, 2011

College is a platform, a place to jump off. When you have a lot of options you can explore a lot of options. There are rewards to this, and risks. Floundering and underachievement still make me nervous. Heading off to college affords one the chance to reinvent. You spent your high school years strutting the halls as a big tough jock and want to shed the meathead in you for the poetry-lover, the museum-goer, the vegetarian? You can do that in college. You have a clean slate. It's a chance to examine who you are and who you want to be. I'm not sure life hands over too many of these chances. And at some point, it stands to reason, you want to be satisfied by who you are and what you do. Leaving my journalism job for carpentry wasn't a reinvention, but it did force me to look at how much of my self-identity was wrapped up in what I did. You are more than the music you listen to and the name of the college you go to — and you will be more than your job title and the name of the place that you work. College, work, both, are about the relationships you build.

In college, I wanted to get good grades. More honestly: I wanted to get better grades than the people around me. This is my own competitive weirdness, and each of us varies in this respect. I learned how to keep it in check in college, how to see it as a motivator for better work. So now, when my boss drives a nail into a board in four strokes and it takes me eleven, I feel a sense of competition, a sense of wanting not to outdo my boss but to do better and get better. Good teachers inspire this. Take classes based on the reputation of the professor  if you couldn't care less about the Civil War but hear that the person who teaches the class is the best there is, take the class. Finding a mentor is hard, but when it happens, it's one of the most valuable relationships possible.

The ways that college prepared me for carpentry, though still valid and true, require a bit more of a mental stretch than the ways it patently did not.

If I learned anything in college it was how to bullshit. It was how to fake my way through sounding like I knew something. I got really good at it. And it often turned out the thicker the bullshit, the better the grade. In carpentry, if you bullshit, the drawer won't close, the threshold will squeak, the tiles will crack, you'll trip on the stairs, and the walls will fall down. Corners can be cut, no question, but when you fake it, you know. Your boss knows. Your client knows. You are answerable, in a direct and tangible way, for your work. There's a subjectivity to a grade (when we're talking American Lit as opposed to Principles of Engineering). Carpentry has objective results. The floor doesn't cave in when you walk on it, for example. The books don't tumble off the shelf.

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