The Best Life Advice I Ever Received

The best advice I ever received came in the form of a lesson in auto repair.

Auto Maintenance Lessons

One afternoon, many years ago, when I was a teenager living on (and working) the family farm, my father approached me and said that he had decided to teach me how to overhaul an engine. Now.

My father was not someone you spoke back to or questioned directly. When he made a decision and gave an order, you were expected to do as you were told. Period. (This was the late 1980s, it was a different world back then.) So, I followed him to the barn, which also acted as a garage, and he proceeded to show me how to overhaul the engine of one of the family cars.

For the sake of clarity, ‘overhaul’ literally meant: take the entire engine apart; clean everything; replace any parts that were malfunctioning, worn out, broken or questionable; and then put it all back together.

The lessons lasted a few weeks. I would join him in the barn and he would show me the official car manual, point to the page he was working with, pull apart that portion of the engine, point to the page again (read: this part is that picture), hand me a tool, flip to a new page and tell me to get to work (read: find this part and do what I did). Sometimes he would send me out to the garage by myself with instructions to locate a specific part in the book, locate it on the engine, and figure it out (remove, fix, whatever) alone.

(Side note: This was the most verbal interaction I had ever had with my father at that time – or since.)

When the car was complete, he called over a neighboring farmer and his sons so that all of us could use a winch, the tractor and sheer muscle to get the engine back into the car. This resulted in some snide remarks about girls overhauling engines and boys doing nothing…it was annoying (read: the boys and their father were angry with me for showing them up) but that’s how things were back then.

After the first car was finished, I was handed the same type of printed manual for the second car – a 1979 Ford Granada – and told to do the same. Alone.

As it happened, due to being blood relations to a member of the military I had full access to a nearby military base and all of the facilities, including the auto hobby shop. In the interests of avoiding another episode of moving car engines by calling on the neighbors (and all of those comments about girls who work on cars), I drove the Ford Granada to the auto hobby shop and availed myself of some wonderful equipment!

That is where I met Woody.

Woody ran the auto hobby shop. He controlled the tools (kept behind a locked door), kept the peace, and provided advice to everyone who used the shop – both the asked for and the unasked for kind.

At one point I was looking up the torque for specific bolts and trying to make sure I got everything tightened properly when he came over and interrupted my work by saying (loudly) – (paraphrased from memory):

NEVER memorize a torque! Always look it up EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. If you don’t then one day you’ll be tightening the bolt on an airplane, you’ll remember the wrong torque, the plane will go down and it will be YOUR FAULT.

Then he walked away.

My response was a dazed moment of ‘what just happened?’ followed by shrugging it off as ‘just Woody’ and making a mental note to NEVER memorize a torque.

Another time I went up to the tool cage and asked for a hammer. He came out with a sledgehammer and basically dared me to challenge him. I politely stated that I just needed a regular hammer, which resulted in a lecture about always knowing exactly which tool you need – including the size!

On one more occasion I was struggling to either get something apart or together (I no longer remember what). My hands hurt and I was getting really frustrated. Woody interrupted my task with the following – (paraphrased from memory):

When you just can’t get it to work, walk away, stare at the wall, swear up and down a blue streak, and when you come back it will work.

I thought this was funny but Woody insisted it was true and encouraged me to try. After he left (and I’d taken a break) my mechanical problem magically resolved itself.

Auto Maintenance Fails and Wins

As you may imagine, I had both success and failure with these projects. A few significant fails include:

  • Forgetting to unplug the battery while working on the alternator. I connected some wires, dropped a metal tool (with rubber handles) which hit the side of the (metal) car and caused an enormous FLASH BANG. I stared at the car in that state of terror that comes from barely sidestepping death – I was lucky to be alive. The brand new alternator was NOT so lucky. I had to replace it…again.
  • Forgetting to tighten the bolts on the flywheel. Every other dern bolt in that engine was perfectly tightened according to appropriate torque, but a small handful of little bolts at the center of the engine were loose. The car won’t work if the flywheel isn’t bolted down. We had to pry open the engine, just enough to slide in a tool and tighten those stupid things. My father fixed this mistake. I handed him tools while learning a long list of brand new ways to curse life the universe and auto repair.

My massive success came in the form of a 79 Ford Granada with a newly cleaned up engine, done entirely by me!

What Does This Have to Do With Life and Advice?

The following lessons were learned from the experience, and every single one of them has not only stuck with me but has served me well across the decades:

  1. Look it up. Find a reliable, accurate source of information and use it. It could be a book. It could be the guy running the auto hobby shop or a parent. Whatever the source may be – USE it.
  2. Verify – ALWAYS verify. Whether it’s a torque, gossip or a news article, never assume that you just know the truth – verify it!
  3. Communicate. Whether it’s a hammer or the specification for a project at work or your concerns with the current political system, it is extremely important to clearly communicate your needs, concerns and demands. You will never get past the sledgehammer until you learn how to ask for the hammer size you actually need.
  4. Details! Absolutely everything can be perfect, but miss a few bolts on the flywheel and you might as well have never touched the engine. Forget to remove two clamps on a battery and you’ll be lucky to survive! All of the details are important. Pay attention, complete each step before moving on, and double check your work.
  5. Take a break. Trying to force something to work (or happen) just isn’t realistic. When you’re frustrated, tired, hungry or just beating your head against the proverbial wall, it’s time to walk away from the situation and take a break (swear if you need to – or just take a nap or a walk or…whatever). When you come back, there’s a strong possibility that the problem will look different and you will get closer to a solution.
  6. Both Failure and Success are Powerful Teachers. Both the massive fails and the huge successes in this process taught me things about both cars and life. Things that I have never forgotten. It can be painful to fail, but it’s all a learning process.
  7. Haters will Hate, Do It Anyway. The neighbors who felt threatened by a ‘girl’ doing auto repair weren’t the only people with commentary. My female friends from high school also made it clear that what I was doing was ‘weird’ and potentially proved I was a lesbian (this was the late 1980s in VERY rural Wisconsin farm country, on a military base – lesbian was a dangerous word.) Yet, I completed the project and found pride in that fact. Even though my father had made the decision for me (and there was no getting around that) I enjoyed the process and consciously chose to disregard the haters, defy society’s stupidity and do it anyway. In life that is often the best…or only…choice a person can make.
  8. Reaching a Goal is it’s Own Reward. Because of the culture of the times, I couldn’t brag about my success to many, if any, people and it didn’t matter. I’d done it, I knew I’d done it and I was proud of that fact. I didn’t need to tell anyone else about it because I was driving the car that was the (literal) symbol of my success.

-Originally posted to Quora in answer to the question What is the best life advice you have ever received?

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