Written on May 03, 2010 By Dan O'Connor

The Dao of Dewalt

One of my first manufacturing jobs was in a small shop making precision rifles. We did the whole nine yards. Drilled, reamed and rifled the barrels. Machined the bolt actions and made the gunstocks out of beautiful California Claro walnut.

One of the jobs was grinding angles on the bolt handle before it was welded onto the bolt. These angles were important in that they had to nestle nicely into the action body when the bolt was closed and locked.

The Daily Grind

The grinding was done freehand on a belt sander. A template was provided to check the angles against, but otherwise the only control was the skill of the guy doing the grinding. Now that I have spent a lifetime in manufacturing I can see that it was a poor way to control a process. I did however, start me down the path of understanding the connection between mind and body.

I ruined probably 30 of the first ones I tried to grind. Grind a little bit, test, grind a little bit more, test,grind some more-Crap-throw it away-do it again.

I don’t know at what point when I actually entered the zone. 200 pieces, 500 pieces, a thousand-I don’t know. All I know is that there were 3 angles on the part and I was doing it in 3 moves. Grind, rotate, grind, rotate, grind, drop in bucket. I took you longer to read this than it took me to do it. I didn’t even check them and they always fit beautifully. I did not check them because I could feel that they are right. If one happened to not feel right I would set it aside and more than likely it would need some adjustment.

Peace in the Mess

But more importantly it was how I felt while I was doing it. It was loud, dirty, nasty work and I felt wonderful. I was at peace with all the world. All my attention was focused on my task but another part of was free to drift. It was as if the intense task at hand captured all of my logical brain and my subconscious? was allowed to roam free. It was magic amid the heat, dust and noise.

Fast forward 25 years and I was in the middle of a hay field I had purchased 3 years earlier. I was not ready to build a house yet but I had to do something and a fence to define the house site and a shed for shelter and shade was just the ticket.

I was now no stranger to this sometimes elusive idea of working in the zone.

I had set all the posts (that is another story) and I was attaching the horizontal boards that define the fence itself.
There has been millions of dollars spent I am sure researching the best was to construct a power driven screw. There is nothing more exasperating than having the head of the screw strip out or have the driver jump out of screw head half way into a board. I have settled on using deck screws with a modified Phillips head that seem to work the best.

A Mans Best Friend is His Drill

Except for the heavy bolts for the beams I have used these almost exclusively in my house. Very few nails and about a 100,000 screws so far.
I had no electricity so I purchased an 18V cordless drill and circular saw set by Dewalt. This along with a couple extra batteries and a car charger would keep me going all weekend. They are both still going strong.

As I learned to use the drill I would press very hard on it to keep it from jumping out. After a hundred screws or so I was tired and my hands, arms, shoulders and back hurt. Luckily it was time to quit for the day. Early the next morning I was at it again. As the day wore on it got easier. I had to put less and less pressure on the drill to get it to stay engaged. At one point much to my amazement I had to only squeeze it with thumb and forefinger with no pressure applied by my arm. It was as if the drill was being sucked in with screw.

As I continued to work I realized that I could “feel” when the axis of the drill was perfectly lined up with the axis of the screw and the direction of travel. And it was so pleasurable. I didn’t care about getting the work done I just wanted to stay on this high. This overwhelming narcotic. My body had learned the mechanics of the work though mindful repetition. It hooked up with the command center (my brain) and together they worked as a team sending and receiving the millions of tiny signals and transmitting them into minute muscular adjustments.

No Easy Answers

What an absolute miracle-And I was aware of it all. It seemed as if the whole world flowed through me into those small screws and then into the wood. When at last I came to the sun was low in the sky, there were no more boards and I had a fence. The joy of seeing the fence complete took a back seat to the feeling of loss as whatever had held me faded away. It had not left me completely though. A little piece of it remained. I carry a small piece of everything I have ever made with me and everything I have ever made carries a small piece of me.

I would like to tell you that there is an easy way but I cannot. The key is repetition. Doing it over and over and over again-mindfully. I believe it was Andre Agassi that would practice 1000 backhands a day, then 1000 serves a day.

I don’t care who you are or what you are doing, if you practice mindful repetition you will get better. If you do this I guarantee that the goal of the doing will take a back seat to the doing itself.

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