I once got a phone call from a student in a sustainable agriculture program at some college. She said her class had been given the assignment of calling farmers and asking them what skill they would recommend students learn in the program. Without hesitation I answered, “Small engine repair.” She was clearly taken aback. “Well that’s not an answer I was expecting,” she said. I’m sure she expected to hear crop rotation, covercropping, composting or something like that. But as I told her, a farmer just can’t afford to take things to the shop every time they break down. Farmers have to know how to fix things on their own.
My father was an excellent mechanic, as was my grandfather. They would have been happy to teach me their skills. But I had no interest in mechanical things (nor any aptitude for them). I just did what I was told then hurried back to my books. Decades later, when I set the books aside and returned to the farm, I had nearly no mechanical skills. Even the things I’d learned growing up had been long since forgotten. Every time something broke down (a regular occurrence on a farm) things would grind to a halt. Even basic equipment maintenance was something I had to learn through trial and error, with an emphasis on error.
But I’ve been learning and, while still inept, I’m getting better.
I once had a client who was a heart surgeon and medical school professor. He was one of the pioneers of heart transplant operations. One day I remarked that I was amazed at his ability to remove a person’s heart and replace it with another one. I can’t imagine any more impressive skill, I told him. But he just shrugged it off. Surgery comes easy to me, he said. That skill is God-given. What is really challenging to me is writing papers, he continued. I struggle with that and I have a real sense of satisfaction when I get one done, because it doesn’t come easy to me and I have to work so hard to do it.
His comments, which were sincere and genuine, have stuck with me. I think I understand what he was saying.
One of the hydraulic hoses on my tractor started leaking. It needed to be replaced. It wasn’t that long ago that if you asked me to replace an hydraulic hose on a tractor you may as well have asked me to build a spaceship and fly it to the moon.
Yesterday I removed the hose and put a new one on. It turned out to be a simple thing to do, even for someone as unskilled as me. Still, I felt as good about doing that I would’ve once felt about winning a hearing. It was a good feeling.