Polishing Hinges

“There’s nothing intrinsic about the manual trades when it comes to generating this particular source of meaning. Any pursuit—be it physical or cognitive—that supports high levels of skill can also generate a sense of sacredness.”

— Cal Newport, Deep Work, p. 89

This essay was originally published as the introduction to Good Work—Edition Nº 34 on Holloway.com.
Soundtrack:
II. Mrs. Dalloway: In The Garden, by Max Richter

In my century-old house, the hinges on every door are covered in layers of paint. For a hundred years, the people painting this house refused to find a screwdriver or to tape around the hinges, dooming me to stare at this mess. On Holloway’s Work-From-Home Wednesday this week, around 5 o’clock PM, some part of me snapped. I had to go nuclear on those suckers, strip them down to the brass I knew lay below the strata of practical beiges, “Careful Whisper” blues, and a hundred other bad decisions and attempts to mask them.

On the way to the hardware store with plans to strip every hinge in the house, and sand a quarter inch off the bottom of a door that kept catching on the carpet, my brain confronted me. “Is there a better use of your evening? How ‘bout taking something off the top of your to-do list, brother? Something urgent and important or, hell, leave urgent out of the equation and go with something plain old important.” As if sitting across the table from a colleague, I thought back to myself, “Great point, but how about no?” The rest of the night, as I sanded and boiled off the latex and lord knows what they used to paint in the 1920’s (yeah, I know, freaking lead), I kept asking myself, “What on Earth are you doing this for?”

Some call this Yak Shaving, portrayed with brilliance in Malcolm in the Middle with Hal fixing a light bulb. See, my actual work, you know, the stuff I spend fifty or sixty hours a week doing and getting paid for, consists of jumping between product design, writing-to-think, writing-to-publish, internal and external meetings, spreadsheets for finance, spreadsheets for marketing, and no shortage of staring out the window while waiting for my thoughts to fall into place like Teewees and Orange Rickies onto the cool blue infinite of my entire life. Rarely does my work afford me the twin pleasures of starting something and finishing it in a day, and oh my god it’s a real thing I can touch, point to, or use, something done.

In the end, I got down to brass. As I cleaned the sawdust out of every cavity of my home, muscles aching from handling and sanding the beast of the old door, I realized how important it is to me to have that tactile achievement, every once in a while, to have something to point to and say, “I did that.” I had only improved minute details I doubt others will ever notice. Certainly, no one’s saying thank you. But what is Good Work at any level, from building a company to raising a skyscraper, if not work done with patience and dedication? A conscientious commitment to steady, incremental progress, week after week, for years at a time? If infinite regress is “turtles all the way down,” maybe progress is just polishing hinges.

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