Understanding how to turn a limitation into an opportunity is invaluable. A close second is finding examples of people using their obstacles to fuel their success. So I’ve started to search for these opportunists and glean what knowledge I can. Inspiring stories help us relate and see that we can do anything!
With that in mind, I want to introduce you all to an amazing man in my life. A self-built farm boy, who became a high school teacher from his college studies and a professional craftsman out of desperation and need. A man who’s built, 3 of his family’s homes and grown much of the food they ate. He taught his four sons, and his grandchildren; the importance of work, studying out solutions, the importance of tools and learning new skills. He’s the best example I have of turning a limitation into an opportunity, and was very free with the lessons he learned in doing so.
Or as I call him… Grandpa.
Let me just state, if you have a chance to interview older members of your family do it! I know my grandpa pretty well but asking insightful questions on how he was able to turn obstacles around let me know him a lot better. This post is just the tip of the iceberg for Reed’s insights on how to thrive where you’re planted.
The importance of work
Reed attributes much of his success to his early years on a farm, where he learned to work long, hard hours. Back then there were no tractors, so you’d have to show up ½ hour early and stay ½ hour late to take care of the horses. The necessities of farm life naturally lead to more labor. As such work has never seemed to daunt my grandpa. If it takes more time and effort to do something right, he does more work.
Growing up on a farm meant learning to use hand tools, and the structure of how things work. When Reed wanted to do something new, he’d study it out, this meant a lot of observing and listening. If it was complex Reed would write it out, and sometimes he just had to try things, in order to progress.
‘By experience you learn and from learning you experience—they’re a team.’
The importance of tools
The second lesson is in viewing tools as an investment. Tools helped Reed save a ton in his lifetime. Whenever he needed a handyman job done he’d compare the price of contracting the work out, to the cost of the tools it took to accomplish it. Many times, the tools Reed needed cost about the same, or less, than hiring the work out–so he’d buy the tool.
Reed has always been good with money. If he needed something, he’d build it. Dresser, cabinet, dining table, house—you name it, he built it. Mostly out of necessity—on a teachers’ salary they were just treading water.
As we walked through his home, Reed was surprised at how much he’d built. He joked that there wouldn’t be much left in the house if he got rid of all the furniture he built, and he’d be right! Basically anything on his property with a drawer, shelf, or hook was built by him.
Building is something Reed has done most of his life. His first job was to build the Scera theater in Orem, Utah. He worked for Frank Woffinden, who taught him an important lesson on mistakes.
At the end of a work day, Frank went around asking his crew a certain question.
Frank to a young crew member
‘Did you make any mistakes?’
‘Did you make any mistakes?’
And on it went until Frank came to a more experienced crew member.
‘Did you make any mistakes?’
‘Oh yeah, I cut this board too short, so I had to work around it and fix it up.’
‘Well, alright then.’
The point was you can’t do anything without mistakes, the real issue is how you take care of them.
‘Don’t be afraid to make a mistake—leave some room for it.’
Study it out
Reed also read (you see what I did there?) a great deal to learn new skills. He knew a lot about building homes from re-modeling, tearing out walls and the like, but when more knowledge was needed he hit the local library or book store. That’s how he learned the sequence to building a house his first time around (i.e. do you put the electrical or the air ducts in first?).
Reed didn’t have the surveying equipment (or know where to buy it), to do the first few steps of building his home, so he made his own! Using his garden hose, filled with water, he was able to determine where to mark his footings and keep them level with each other. A crucial step so your walls are plumb and the floor level.
From there he built a rudimentary home for his wife, Jane, so she would have somewhere to stay, in case Reed was drafted for the Korean War (it had just broken out). He used a collection of cheap to free building materials he had access to, through work and friends. Their first home was made mostly of concrete and corrugated metal. It was very crude, but they had their own home, on their own land.
Reed built everything pictured above, yes even the deck. The really cool metal pieces required him to build his own tools. One of Reed’s coat of arms is in use at
the Smithsonian! a family museum (Whoops! I guess I should ask the source instead of going off of family rumor).
After 15 years of teaching in Utah, their family was still just treading water. Despite their obvious knack for living on little they weren’t able to live on Reed’s teaching salary. They’d borrow during the school year, to make ends meet. During the summer Reed would take on extra jobs and pay off the debt, just in time to start another school year-and thus go back into debt. When their oldest was headed to college they had to make some changes.
Reed was able to secure a new teaching position in California that paid $726 more a year. So they moved from Utah to California-where they were finally able to live on what Reed made. True to form, when it came to buying a house in the new area Reed found it best to build. He found a 2 ½ acre lot with water on it (pretty huge deal when living in the desert) for $6,000.
Experience is an investment in yourself
When he went in to apply for a loan, he brought his credentials and a house plan. Reed showed he was an industrial arts teacher (wood shop/metal shop) at a local school, and also let them know he was a journeyman (read pay worthy) carpenter, cabinet maker, machinist, and welder.
With his income the bank typically would have turned down his loan. But the loan officer decided with all his experience it would be ok to loan enough for the foundation of the house. Once that was completed the bank would loan him more, using the foundation as equity. They did that step by step until the house was built.
They had to live rough. They slept out in a camper so people wouldn’t steal their lumber at night. The kitchen was in a trailer and they ate in the garage, where they had to compete with the flies to eat their food. They finished it room by room, moving in as the rooms were finished.
Learn a new skill
When it came to laying the brick, they hit a snag. The cheapest they could find was $2,400—his whole salary for the year! Reed didn’t know how to lay brick, he tried but there was something tricky going on with the mortar. It was drying out and becoming a sloppy mess. His usual method of learning, watching mason workers wasn’t helping. He just couldn’t figure it out.
Luckily he mentioned it to a custodian at school, who turned out to be a retired mason worker. His friend knew how to lay brick, how the brick and mortar play off of each other and the like.
So Reed paid the custodian $30 to teach him, and soon he was laying his own brick. By letting others know his problem he was able to save a year’s salary! It was worth it. With $14,000 they had a home built on 2 ½ acres, with water—pretty good deal even for the 70’s!
The move to California meant more than living on his salary, now he could take on side jobs as well. He started tutoring students for $20 an hour and eventually was able to start his own businesses. He had a rebuilt alternator business, a laundromat (hardest work for the least money), and a gas station/car wash.
When Reed retired he was able to move back to Utah, build another house (this time he let someone else build it-but he laid the brick) and get into real-estate. He still does the handyman jobs on his rentals-providing landscaping and snow removal-in his 90’s!
As a consequence he and his wife are able to live comfortably, debt free without any assistance from others. According to Dave Ramsey’s book ‘The Total Money Make Over’ only 2% of senior’s are financially independent, most have to move in with their kids.
Not only does Reed and his wife Jane live independently they help the rest of the family out. Reed is truly an inspiring example of making the most of your situation and turning a limitation into an opportunity. I’m so thankful to have this man as part of my life, because he just rocks!
Do you have someone that inspires you to make the most of life?
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