I have a hard time taking advice. I gladly accept advice from people who have far more experience than myself, but when people start telling me how to do things they’ve never done before, I stop listening.
Conversely, I’ve always found it frustrating that people who really are experts in their field go out of their way to keep their secrets to themselves. In all the years I’ve been trying to become a better leatherworker and engraver, I’ve had dozens of some of the best saddle makers and engravers in the country in my shop, and I can count on one hand the times one of them has told me one of their secrets on how to do something.
My wife and I have always been savers, not spenders, so when we started out, we saved money by living in some less-than-desirable neighborhoods with less than desirable neighbors. One next-door neighbor was a portly guy whose yard was overgrown with weeds, an old boat was parked in the front yard, and his house looked like it would fall down in the next earthquake. On the other hand, we kept a tidy place, and every time I’d start a new project, whether it was painting the house or working on my truck, the uninvited neighbor would come over and start telling me how to do it. I quickly learned that free advice was the costliest kind.
When we finally had enough money to buy 100 cows, we leased a run-down ranch because it was cheap. I wasn’t going to spend our money on another man’s place, so I didn’t waste any on improvements. Every time I’d run into a certain cattleman, he told me I needed to fix my fences and build a better loading chute. He also told me my bulls weren’t good enough, and I needed to supplement more. All this from a guy whose calves wouldn’t weigh 400 pounds at weaning.
I had a great friend who was a very talented woodworker but who’d never worked with leather in his life. I’d made him several useful objects which he liked, and he asked me if I’d make him two identical soft-sided briefcases. For the next week, he was in my shop daily, telling me how to tool and construct them. One day I’d had enough, and I sat him down and said, “I want to tell you an old story that I think is pertinent and timely.”
It went like this: “An old cowboy was sitting on his horse by the side of a road when a guy drives up in a fancy Mercedes, wearing a pair of $500 sunglasses and an expensive Italian suit. He stuck his head out the window and engaged the cowboy in some friendly chit-chat. Wanting to impress the cowboy, the dude says, ‘I bet I can tell you exactly how many animals you have without leaving my car, and if I do will you give me a calf?”
The old cowboy ponders this proposal and says, “Why not?” So the dude gets out his computer, connects it to his cell phone, and surfs to the NASA page on the Internet. He uses a satellite navigation system to get an exact fix on the ranch, which then tells a NASA satellite to scan the area in ultra-high resolution. Then he downloads this information into a special program that counts the animals. The dude says, “You have exactly 1,505 animals on your ranch.”
The cowboys looks at the dude in amazement and says, “That’s exactly right. I guess you get one of my calves.” So the cowboy looks on as the dude tries to stuff the small animal into his Mercedes. Then the cowboy asks, “If I can tell you exactly what business you’re in will you give me back my calf?”
“Why not?” says the dude.
“You’re an emissary of the U.S. government.”
“Wow. How did you know?” asked the dude.
“I know because you showed up even though no one called you, you want to get paid for an answer I already knew, to a question I never asked. You tried to show how much smarter than me you are and you don’t know a damn thing about cows… this is a flock of sheep. Now give me back my dog.”