Dig Yourself Out By Digging A Hole

On July 14, 1990, Bobby Fisher (Not the Chess Player), the man who gave me the opportunity to learn how to work went back to prison. He was an outlaw who took great strides to make sure I didn’t follow his path. Some people would see that as the end of that job, but for me it was the door I had been biding my time for, preparing myself to walk through. Bobby used to borrow big equipment from a man named Bill Wilson, who owned Rite Way Foundation Repair. One day while I was standing there, Bobby put in a good word for me, telling Mr. Wilson what a good worker I was. On the ride home, Bobby told me to ask Mr. Wilson for a job if anything ever happened to him. So that’s what I did. I was 18 years old.

I used to dig holes for Bobby Fisher. It was brutal, but I became strong by not giving up. Digging holes with Rite Way introduced me to a more established company with better equipment and better trained crew. They not only conquered the same monster I’d learned to conquer, they had a way of making the monster of digging holes by hand, cower in strict obedience. They stood up and the monster sat down. Their hole digging was an art form I couldn’t have previously imagined. They actually sang as they raced to see who could dig the fastest. $5 a hole. They worked with such captivating elegance, finesse and synergy that what I preciously as knew as a monster seemed more like purple circus poodle on a leash in comparison. Flashing back, a few truths emerge.

  1. You don’t know how good or bad you are without something to judge yourself against.
  2. Just because you have a jersey doesn’t mean you made the team. You are lucky to get a tryout.
  3. Doors to new opportunities open more often to the ones who grind in the background. Do everything you can when nobody’s looking to prepare yourself.

Team Trials

A person doesn’t learn to slay a monster by looking at a picture on the white board, reading a book or watching a video. Give him something to contend with. Have him run the gauntlet. Have him dig his hole and see if he has what it takes. Let the task itself be judge and jury. Pass or fail. It didn’t matter if I was a nice person. It didn’t matter if I had the look. What mattered was being able to complete the task.

The Task

Dig by hand, a hole over 40 times bigger than what I’d just mastered, not under a house in the shade, but on the side of a house in a ruthless July San Antonio summer. 100 degrees or better, no breeze.

The first day is always the hardest. Brutal is an understatement. It was July in San Antonio, when every day is over 100 degrees. You have no idea what will be required of you, what you’re being thrown into, anything about technique, tools or even yourself. It’s hell all over again. You just hope you prepared enough. The holes had to be thirty inches below the lowest part of the slab that held up the house. First you had to dig to find that – then dig two and a half feet beyond that. Once you reached your depth, you had to tunnel under the house twelve inches. Muddy, dehydrated, overheated, exhausted and suffering, the sun radiated wave after merciless wave of heat on my back. No shade. I repeatedly slumped into the small shadow cast by the wall of the hole I was digging. Desperate and confused, with no idea how my coworkers could dig so fast, I slowly muscled forward to fight this monster. I refused to quit.

Foundation Repair

The foreman made his rounds, dropping his shovel, conveniently marked with depth measurement, in the hole to check my progress. Coworkers gone, I’d pitifully peer up from my slump, hoping for a miracle. I’d ask, “is it good enough?” He’d take back his shovel, just shake his head, knowing I had further to go. I realized that if I had to ask if it was good enough, it wasn’t. I kept going until I knew within myself I’d finished. To the uninitiated, the work can seem almost inhuman. And I had to do it all again the next day. But that task taught me a lesson. If you can’t conquer a monster, you really have no place of fellowship with the other monster slayers. There’s only one way into their club.

Real monster slayers know other monster slayers when they see them. You can’t just show up and claim to be one without proving yourself. You can’t be on their team. You will be exposed as a fraud. You can fake the outfit. You can fake the language. You can even fake the tools. But you can’t fake technique. You can’t fake competence. The price for mastery is steep. Many start. Few make the finish line. Want a place on the team? Make the finish line. Then make the finish line again.

Every day after I worked to master a movement. I picked up my teammate’s techniques and owned them. Sharpen the shovel blade with a grinder, dip the the shovel in water, rock the handle back and forth to make it cut the ground better. Wear boots instead of tennis shoes. Keep a 3″ putty knife to clean the shovel blade. I learned to prefer one style of shovel over another to achieve better results. The most important lesson of all? Don’t put your shovel in the hole without pulling out some dirt.

Here’s the good news. Seasoned monster slayers know what the job requires of a person. Not only can they sympathize with the beating you are taking, if you want to be there and are giving it your all, they want you to succeed. They cheer you on and give you the room to make your mistakes, take your lumps and earn your place. I was like a yellow belt surrounded by black belts who were excited to see me get to the next rank.

My plan – bide my time. Master every movement. Master every sequence of movements. Master sequencing the sequences I was learning. It was only a matter of time before a new door appeared and when it did, I’d be ready. Two years later I had paid my dues, started my own company with my own tools and performed my own contracts.

Bide Your Time

It’s a good strategy not only to do the work everyone else avoids, but, lean into it, own it. Make it yours. Take it as your opportunity to show the people around you what you are made of. Want to move up? Get there early. Stay late. Volunteer for the absolute worst task the job has to offer and tame that monster. Master it. The people who matter will notice and think of you when they need something else. Be the one who takes out the trash, cleans the toilet, organizes the hoses and extension cords. Be the one who loves to shovel the dirt, to dig the hole. Jump at the opportunity to scrape the window. Start at the bottom, master the lowliest of the lows, own and be proud of your position. Prove your worth by being worth something. Do that and you’ll be the one standing there when the next door opens. Do that enough times and something like Wood Window Makeover might emerge.