Can I help you start?

“That’s more impressive than anything I’ve ever done.”
The man who said it was faceless, passing my house at twilight as I worked on my boat in the driveway.

I wanted to wave away the mystique of accomplishment and told him he could do it too.

“All you have to do is start.”

That’s what I said to him.

“All you have to do is start.”

I meant it as an invitation.


My well-to-do burby neighborhood has watched in supportive fascination as one of their own removed his Gray Flannel Suit and took a public risk by creating something.

It’s getting close to finished now, and actually looks like a boat to even the most casual observer. That, combined with the increased summer foot-traffic, has brought a host of well-wishers past to wave encouragement.


I love it.


Everyone has in them excitement, ability, and genius.
In most of us they lie dormant; stifled by expectations and fear or numbed away by television or the web.


Working on my boat is how I proselytize. Maybe filling my driveway with wood shavings can inspire someone to learn a language, take the quilting lessons they’ve always wanted, or write the novel that’s aching to get out.

Every time I wave back to someone, or answer their questions about the project, I hope I’ve incited them to act.

“All you have to do is start.”

It should have been innocuous, a take-it-or-leave-it suggestion of future possibility.
But he didn’t take it that way.

In an abstract “I’m not really interested, but I’m willing to dispute the point” way he talked about the knowledge or skill necessary to start such a thing.

On its face, what I’m doing appears to require great skill. In reality, a couple of library books, $200 in hand tools, and courage (or naivete) are enough to start. But how could he know that? I didn’t know it until the boat was half finished.

I should have conceded and re-issued the invitation another day; a day when we could talk without shouting across a yard, read intentions on each others faces, and when I could find out what excited him.


I should have, but I didn’t.


“All you have to do is start”.

I only said it once, but it landed so badly that it echoes in my mind.

After he disappeared into the dark I thought to track him down, apologize, and explain that I intended to invite rather than belittle. It was too late though. I didn’t know which way he went, and with the sky fading into night I had no idea what he even looked like.

So, I let him go.

After sitting with it for a few days I’ve realized my mistake:


People have to know you, or think they do, before you can inspire them. Prior to relationship it is presumptuous to suggest they change their priorities and, by extension, their lives.


In the absence of relationship the question isn’t innocuous, it’s pejorative.

Perhaps a better question is the one I ask you…

“Can I help you start?”


Why would anyone want to build a boat?

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

-Langston Hughes

When I was a kid I helped my Dad build a boat. He was great to work with and a consummate teacher. That was lucky, because I made a lot of mistakes. Many times I learned firsthand that I should have followed his advice. He graciously allowed errors into the finished boat because the process was more important to him than the product.

Despite the errors I had one genuine point of pride. I hand carved an ash mast step to extend our 2nd hand hobie rig to the necessary height for our sail plan. It was a tricky piece of work and I did it all myself. Looking at it today with a critical adult eye I can’t see how it could be better. That experience of mastery, of doing something really well, was a high. After that I always thought I would build a boat myself. One day I would create and launch a beautiful craft that would match the artistry of my mast step.

You need three things to build a boat: time, money, and space. I always seemed to lack at least one, so I contented myself with looking at plans and reading about techniques. I gradually deferred the boat to the nebulous “someday” where ideas and dreams are put out to pasture.

Then, my Grandfather died. Like me, (like you?) he always dreamed about things he would do someday. His dream was to build a log cabin. He bought the land and had the knowledge but he never broke ground.

I realized that my own plans were gradually slipping away.

That’s why I’m building a boat.

I started soon after his death but at some point I lost focus and the project languished in my garage untouched.

Then the strangest thing happened…I noticed.

I noticed that time was passing me by again.
I noticed that I wasn’t working on the projects that interested me and energized me the most.
I noticed that I was checking off the mundane tasks of life that didn’t really matter to me.
I noticed that I was tired and it was hard to get up in the morning.
I noticed my kids asking when they’d get to ride in the boat.

That’s why I’ll finish it this year.

Tell me in the comments, what will you finish this year?