Becoming a Journeyman vs hiring a Craftsman

Brick mailbox project


I recently decided to set out on the somewhat mundane task of replacing my (nearly falling over) mailbox with a nicer brick one. It’s certainly not the epitome of an exciting project, but I came upon an interesting bit of insight along the way.

When I set out have something built my first instinct is to built it myself. I’ve come to learn that is a double-edged sword. Sure, I get to learn a new skill or technique and have the unique sense of pride found in having sweat equity in the end result. I love both of those aspects of DIY, which is why I tend to lean toward it. The flip side is that unless I’m going to build one of these things more than once, ever project I complete is the work of an amateur, regardless of how diligent I am in doing the best job possible.

Over the years, I’ve had to force myself to always evaluate the equation of build vs buy. This applies to projects around the house, and software at the office. There are many factors, but the main ones are these…

  • Cost
  • Time
  • Quality
  • Control


I’d say 95% of the time, my initial back-of-the-napkin estimates indicate that it is cheaper to build than buy. The full implication of DIY on TCO (Total Cost of Ownership) is something I sometimes willfully choose to ignore. Questions I have started asking myself to counter this are

  • Do I already have the tools I need to accomplish the task? If not, and can I use them to accomplish other tasks?
    • How much will the necessary tools cost?
    • Will these tools be useful for other tasks?
    • How much space will these tools take up in my garage
    • Can I just rent the necessary tools instead of buying them?
    • Would a person I hire be able to complete the task for cheaper than I can?
  • Do I already possess the knowledge I need to accomplish the task?
    • How long will it take to obtain this knowledge?
    • Can I apply this knowledge in other parts of my life?


  • Do I have time to complete the task myself? This includes any ramp up or tool and material procurement.
  • Can I complete the task myself faster than hiring someone?
  • How long will it take to find and hire someone to complete the task?
  • If I hire someone, how long will it take them to finish the project?
  • How quickly do I need the task completed? This has to balance my time vs finding and hiring someone else.


  • Will I be able to hire someone that will deliver a result of sufficient quality?
  • If I do it myself, will quality suffer?
  • Will my perfectionist tendencies prevent me from ever completing the project?


  • Am I willing to give up control of the project to someone else
  • How important is having complete control – taking other factors into account such as cost, time & quality?
  • Will I be able to hire someone to complete the task with autonomy?

Taking the time to do a quick evaluation of these four factors have helped choose a more effective route and achieve better results rather than just always falling back to DIY.

As much fun as it is to DIY everything that comes along, it’s not the right route for every project.

As far at the mailbox goes, I decided to hire someone instead of slinging hundreds of pounds of bricks and mortar myself. When he came out to do the estimate I could tell this guy was a craftsman, not a Jack-of-all-trades and I’m pleased with the result.

“I don’t know” is almost always the wrong answer.

Whether you’re asked about the circumference of the Earth, the number of cups in a gallon, or the land speed velocity of an unladen Swallow – answering, “I don’t know,” is wrong 100% of the time.

While I would never advocate making up an answer in the hopes of your inquisitor not knowing the answer themselves, It’s never okay to say only “I don’t know,” and leave it at that. It is important to admit your knowledge gaps, but to not seek to fill them in is selling yourself short.

Monty Python – crossing the Bridge of Death

When you reach a mythical ‘Bridge of Death,’ which you must cross, the Keeper of the Bridge requires you to answer three questions. Telling this guy you don’t know the answer, is a really bad idea. After all he will cast you into the Gorge of Eternal Peril if you get it wrong or don’t know the answer.

Take your time, ask clarifying questions if need be, but if you really have no idea, the correct answer is “I’ll find out.”

Nearly every interview I’ve been on has included a question or two that I flat-out didn’t know the answer to. Each time, I made sure to remember or write down the question that had stumped me and to research the answer afterwards. With a little time and concerted effort, you can find the answer, and it’s a great opportunity to follow-up.

Ultimately, the answer to anything you don’t presently know is, “I don’t know … yet.”