Roll the Hammer

So much of life is approached on a trial-and-error basis because we are too proud to ask those who have walked the path ahead of us to share with us what they have learned.

Photo by Stew Beef on Unsplash

When I was quite young, I worked for the Norfolk and Southern Railway System as a laborer. I hired on in mid-summer with temperatures of around 85 degrees F and humidity a normal “muggy” for an Ohio summer. I was young and strong and could hold my own laboring around anyone doing about anything. As it turned out the road crew that I joined was leveling track. My job was to tear out the asphalt of road crossings and then lay the asphalt back in place to support the cars crossing until it could be properly repaved. The leveling engine would move up the track literally picking up the track; shaking it a bit, and then putting it back in place making sure that it was level. We, on the other hand, had to quickly tear out a crossing; drive to the next and tear it out; then go back to the last and replace the asphalt. Then it was on to the third and then back to the second, etc. The only tools we had were 16-pound sledgehammers. We worked 5 twelve-hour days in a row before getting a much-needed two days off. Now, as I said, I was a strapping young man ready to face any physical challenge. At the end of the first day, I assure you that I was suffering from a very sound butt kicking. I had previously played all manner of high school sports; I had worked in hay fields and in haylofts; I had dug ditches and cut brush for surveying; I had worked in every hot and dirty place in a steel mill; if the work was hot and hard, I had done it. This was crazy. You may not know it but the temperatures on a railroad track are always much hotter and much colder than what’s reported. The 85 degrees I mentioned was more like 100 on the track. By the end of the day, the 16-pound sledgehammer felt like 50 pounds or more. My back hurt. My arms hurt. My legs hurt. My mind was pained. After those first twelve hours, I was already mentally looking for another job.

Photo by Moritz Mentges on Unsplash

The next morning, I reported for work and the beating started again. However, on this day amidst the physical beating that was bearing down on me, I happened to look around at our team. I noticed 4 young men like me who were all wearing down with the work. If you’ve never picked up a 16-pound sledgehammer and repeatedly threw it down at asphalt for twelve hours with your only reprieve being to lift the busted asphalt and carry it to the side and then lift it again and lay it back in place, well you haven’t lived! I did notice two older men, both in their fifties, (which to me back then was exceptionally old) who looked like they were faring much better than the rest of us. As I lifted my sledgehammer and threw it down at the asphalt yet again, I tried to pay attention to what these two older men were doing. They swung their sledges like they weren’t that heavy. In fact, they were hitting the asphalt at a rate that was much faster than my own. These two veterans were out working a group of strong young men. I tried to pick up my speed to match them but simply could not keep up. I’m a stubborn guy but in this case, I concluded that they must know something I don’t. I decided to try to find out.

At the next break, I walked over to where these two men separated themselves from the rest of us. I greeted them with my name again as I figured that they’d already forgotten and, as I must confess, I had forgotten their name as well. After getting permission to sit down and talk I directly told them that I could see that they were outworking everyone on the team. I also told them I noticed that they were physically dealing with it much better than the rest of us. I told them that while I knew that they were much more experienced than I was and that they had likely trained their bodies to handle the beating over the years. But I couldn’t help thinking that they might know something I didn’t know and would perhaps teach me their secrets. They looked at each other and both laughed. They said that over the many years that they have seen young guys join a road crew only to quit within weeks because they couldn’t handle the level of work.

They also noted that not one of those young men on any of those road crews asked for help.

They liked that I recognized that they might know something that I didn’t and that I asked for their help. So, they told me the secret, with the provision that I promise not to tell the rest of the guys. “Roll the hammer,” they said. I’m sure I had a puzzled look on my face, so they explained. “It’s simple. You pick the hammer up once and then use its weight to allow it to fall onto the asphalt and then when it bounces you roll your wrists and allow the hammer to rise back up to the top of your swing. Then it falls, bounces and with a roll is back up into position to fall again.” I will tell you that I wondered for a moment if I was being subjected to a practical joke as is often the way of folks welcoming newbies to the job. But, looking for and needing some help, I decided to give it a try. It was awkward at first but then I got the hang of it! Pretty soon I was matching their work output and was not expending nearly as much energy. They taught me quite a bit about railroad work and about life that summer. The fall took me back to college, but the lessons learned on the track were better than most learned in classrooms.

Photo by Irina Iriser on Unsplash

So, why the story about learning to roll a hammer?

Hard work alone is never the answer to success. Before they taught me the secret, I was accomplishing less than they were and paying a much higher price. It’s not only about how hard you’re willing to work — it’s about learning from those who went before you the best way to do the work!

It’s also what a successful life is all about. So much of life is approached on a trial-and-error basis because we are too proud to ask those who have walked the path ahead of us to share with us what they have learned. This is not only true of work but of everything about life. If you want to dramatically reduce the number of mistakes and the wasted effort in your life, ask for help from those who have already been there. It’s not a shame to admit you don’t know and need help. It’s a shame to have help available and not seek it. I always told my children to listen to what I’m telling them and to not make the same mistakes I’ve made. Make your own — don’t borrow and repeat mine. You will accomplish more and live better if you learn from others and make your own mistakes. Yes, you will make mistakes. But your mistakes will be beyond those you learn from, and your success will be greater. Rather than blaze a brand, new trail through the wilderness, follow the trail that’s already blazed until you get to the end of it. Then blaze your new trail from that point on.

Written by Al Ferguson

They said it, I learned from it is a compilation of lessons learned from the things I’ve heard people say over the course of my lifetime. It’s amazing what you can learn when you listen. Watch for They Said it, I learned from it every Friday in The Weekly Hodl. It’s perfect reading while you enjoy your second breakfast. Sign up today.



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