I’m a bit of a fanatic when it comes to tools. The right tools let me do things that most tradespeople shy away from. Part of my “luck” in knowing about the right tools is that I enjoy looking into the past. Our forefathers came up with some wonderful tools, but we seem now to have forgotten about them, or never learned.
Interestingly, a similar thing applies when it comes to materials. We have so many materials to play with now that it’s fun to imagine what Leonardo DaVinci would come up with, if given the full range of things we have to build with. His helicopter might actually fly if built with the right lightweight modern materials, and with stronger motors!
One goal is simply to understand the properties of all common materials. The other goal is to see how things can be used effectively for something other than their intended use. With these understandings, it becomes possible to use things “wrong” and get away with it! In building my house, I used coat-hooks instead of standard knobs on the cabinets. Why? To start, they are easy to use with only one finger. Over the years, I’ve seen how the finish around cabinet knobs has deteriorated from the oils on our hands. Using a coat-hook prevents touching the wood finish, so the cabinets will need to be refinished less often. Mine show no signs of damage after about fifteen years. Coat hooks cost less than knobs. And lastly, I can hang things on them!
Understanding that you’re not (usually) breaking any laws by using things in a way they were not designed to be used, teamed up with an understanding of materials can really open up the choices you have for problem solving and designing things. I used roofing materials on the exterior walls of my house. There is no code saying you cannot use more durable materials than is normal. I understand why gold plumbing is rare, but in the right circumstances, roofing material can be less expensive, more durable and fire resistant than conventional siding. Done well, it’s also far less upkeep. One final example of using things wrong is that I was looking for a way of getting heat into my house, radiantly, through the walls. I thought about the finned copper tubes that you see in solar collectors. They collect heat from the sun and put it into the water. Why can’t this process be reversed? I use warm water flowing through the tubes to put heat into the copper fins and into the house. Just because it was designed to have heat flow one way, doesn’t mean it can’t flow backwards. Understanding material properties lets you re-envision how things can be used, successfully!
A bit more about misusing tools… Those old tools our predecessors made are generally made of better steel than what you can buy now. That means you can work them harder. I’ve collected lots of old pipe wrenches and many were designed to encourage you to put a “cheater” on them. A cheater is usually just a length of pipe that fits over the handle of the wrench. If you do that with some modern tools, you’ll break the jaw at the head of the wrench. How do you think I know this 😉? Old tools can withstand much greater force without damage. Old tools came in a variety of patterns not seen today and this allowed you to easily get the tools into places a modern wrench wouldn’t fit. A good example would be tight quarters where the normal wide jaws of a modern wrench simply don’t fit, like in between screwed fittings. You get around this problem using a smaller old pipe wrench and a cheater. The higher quality steel in the old wrench lets it take the force needed and the cheater lets you exert the force without undue strain on your body. Knowing the properties of materials lets you do this successfully.
I really enjoy ideas. Ideas can come from the past. They can come from different fields of experience; like how plumbing helps inform medicine and visa-versa. Ideas come from using different perspectives than is normal. An example of this is building your home for what energy will cost towards the end of the home’s life. Energy seldom gets cheaper, so what will it cost fifty or one hundred years from now when your home is in middle or old age? Thinking about these things will likely encourage you to install much more insulation than you would have done just to meet code. Insulation is cheap, yet people find excuses to use as little of it as they can get away with. This makes places more expensive to heat and less comfortable to live in. It also tips the scales towards needing to rehab the place sooner than later.
Ideas are surprisingly easy to collect, sift through and put to use in ways that can make life nicer in all sorts of ways. Misusing tools and materials in creative and effective ways is just one way of putting some unusual ideas to work. It only requires understanding the material properties and getting into the habit of asking “What if …”.
The title is sort of a trick question as the answer will be different for different people and their differing needs and skill sets. Looking up the definition of investment, the broadest one is “an act of devoting time, effort, or energy to a particular undertaking with the expectation of a worthwhile result.”
There is an investment guru, Garrett Gunderson, who talks about finding your investor DNA. To me, this is about knowing your own strengths, and weaknesses. Knowing what makes you uncomfortable because it feels too risky, and what drives you. And, what do you want to accomplish in this life? Here’s a link to more detail on just what this is: https://5dayweekend.com/keep-more-money/investor-dna-worksheet/ I like it in part because it’s not the same old stuff we’ve been given all our lives… essentially scrimp and save, which people seldom do well. Clearly, financial literacy* and street smarts about investing are not taught in most schools. We as a nation, have a pretty dismal understanding of how money works. That may be why the top one percent of Americans have roughly the same net worth as the entire middle class. Here’s an article about it: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-11-09/one-percenters-close-to-surpassing-wealth-of-u-s-middle-class
Mr. Gunderson is looking at things using a different perspective and I’m a fan of having multiple perspectives! I don’t know for sure that his methods work, but no doubt how well they work depends a lot on the student.
Using his DNA worksheet, it becomes clear that real estate is a good fit for me because I’m comfortable with it. Also, being a contractor, I can fix it up, and give it value, both with my hands and what I know about building and efficiency. I can take something that was thought to be a tear down and make affordable housing from it, so there is a social goods piece as well. I get to help people. My father was a lawyer, but he did well with real estate because he was able to fix up legally distressed properties. So, what are you good at? What do you like doing? Can you bring those talents to an area that needs them and will reward you for using them?
Back to the title, have you considered that investing in yourself is probably the finest investment you can make? That investment has the possibility of paying back for the rest of your life! I’ve had the same Skilsaw for over forty years. It probably cost $40 way back when. I’ve built homes with it, and a lot of other stuff. I’m pretty sure it was a good investment! Even more important is that I’ve been lucky with mentors. Good people have been willing to teach me some of what they know, and those lessons continue to pay me back for the time I spent learning. My mentors invested their time in me and I’m not about to let that time be wasted.
So, what is a good investment for you? If you think about what matters to you, what you’re good at, what you want to learn, and what can help you reach financial independence, it should become pretty clear where your investment energy should be put.
*Financial literacy is a study unto itself and an interesting one. Here’s a quick definition: “Financial literacy is the ability to understand and effectively use various financial skills, including personal financial management, budgeting, and investing. The lack of these skills is called financial illiteracy.” If you do a search for “financial literacy training”, you’ll see some good info to, at a minimum, help you ask good financial questions.
Looking back over my working life of 50+ years, it seems clear that self sufficiency has always been the best way for me to be useful. Now, mix in a strong interest in water in its many forms and the wide world of animals and you'll know what's important to me.