In June 2020, my husband and I decided to redirect our summer plans and fix up our 100-year-old, off-the-grid cottage. What we hoped would take us one summer, ended up taking us three. Like many old cottages, ours was in desperate need of some TLC. In fact, it is fair to say, it was absolutely, positively falling into the ground.
With no hydro, water access only, and little to no planned budget to fix up, the amount of work ahead of us was overwhelming. Coupled with that, we had no access to tradespeople and building materials were on back order in the throes of a global pandemic, which added an extra layer of complexity. My husband and I like to consider ourselves as hard working people but this project was waaaaayyyyyyy beyond our wildest imagination.
Our journey began and ended with just my husband and I, a few tools, and a whole lot of blood, sweat, and tears. It was also one of the most gratifying projects we have taken on and achieved. Like all intense projects, there were countless lessons learned. Here are my top five lessons learned which can apply to any personal or professional project.
1. Mistakes are a given. Learn from them and then quickly move on.
No matter how much advance planning, research and careful execution, mistakes are a given – and most mistakes are not a bad thing. The magnitude of what we had taken on, including the endless list of supplies needed, tools, coordination of transporting the materials to our water access cottage via our makeshift barge (our dock with an engine on the back) was comical at best.
Not to mention this was all done on weekends while we both maintained demanding day jobs during the work week. We made a few costly mistakes both in terms of money and time lost, but we also learned to accept them as part of the process and more importantly, quickly move on with grace and humor (ok...most of the time with grace and humor).
I think my biggest learning was accepting mistakes are a natural ingredient of a very challenging project. In fact, in this case mistakes were a very positive sign – a sign of all our hard work.
I roll out large and complex projects at work and mistakes come with the territory. I often say – my role as head of a project at work is to make sure those mistakes are learning opportunities for us all. It is a mindset shift for sure but liberating when you truly accept mistakes as part of the process.
2. There are no traffic jams on the extra mile.
When we go the extra mile on any project no matter how big or small, that always seems to be where the magic happens. While my skills and experience in cottage restorations were nil and my husbands was quite extensive, we both shared a fierce (stubborn?) determination to do a quality job.
We wanted to restore the cottage with the intent that it would last for decades and generations to come. Daunting with the magnitude of work, but we never wavered. When you go the extra mile, it pays back in spades down the road for any project at work or at home.
3. There is no greater satisfaction than working with your hands. Full stop.
By the beginning of the third summer (summer of 2022), we could see all our efforts starting to come together. Seeing the end in sight and how the cottage was beginning to look like an actual cottage, reinvigorated us to push hard to the end.
While the manual labor was completely exhausting, it was one of the most satisfying feelings knowing our hands created what we now call our oasis. Even if your day job doesn’t entail working with your hands, finding personal hobbies and projects that work with your hands on the side can add a whole level of personal satisfaction that can carry into your day job.
4. Hard work is so much sweeter when you do it together and as an equal team effort.
We all know how much more satisfying projects are as a team effort. We also know that not all teams work well together. The key is to figure out how to collaborate, leverage each other's strengths, share the work, and stay focused and committed (with a splash of fun).
It takes a lot for a team (even if It’s a team of two people) to gel, especially if it’s a BIG and complex project. Despite having been a couple for around 30 years, this project was unlike any other my husband and I had experienced. So, there were learning curves and some realignments that had to happen along the way.
All great teams know that exceptional work only happens when all team members are fully committed and focused. Communication, a few curse words, and a great sense of humor was key for us to smooth out the rough spots and get us through the journey.
5. Great work happens when you mix hard work with heart. Passion projects will always yield the greatest effort and return.
Although I've always been someone who approaches my life with fierce determination and passion, this project brought it to a whole new level. Our cottage has been in my husband’s family for almost 100 years. We purchased it from his siblings in 2020 and it meant so much to both of us to preserve the incredibly rich family history and memories of this lovely, sacred place.
That, combined with my hobby in antiques and interior decorating, this truly became a passion project. When you combine hard work and passion ~ there is no greater journey and joy. In my professional life, the projects that really stood out were the ones that likewise were fueled by hard work and passion. These types of projects are the ones that really connect emotionally with both consumers and your company's employees.
We stumbled upon this three-year labor of love and thankfully, at the outset we were completely and blissfully blind to the amount of work and challenges that lay ahead of us. I am also thankful we never gave up despite all setbacks and the insanely tough work. What I learned about myself, working as a small but mighty team of two and pushing our mental and physical limits has been life enhancing. And the view on our dock or deck is even that much sweeter knowing our hands, grit and perseverance created this magical oasis.
These lessons can be applied to any tough project at work. I do expect more from myself at work than I ever have before. And, when the going gets tough at work – I just take a deep breath, think about how capable I am to work through it and lean on my team members for their input to make sure we make the right calls.