The Drill Bit Lesson

Once, a long time ago, there was a wise Zen master. People from far and near would seek his counsel and ask for his wisdom. Many would come and ask him to teach them, enlighten them in the way of Zen. He seldom turned any away.

One day an important man, a man used to command and obedience came to visit the master. “I have come today to ask you to teach me about Zen. Open my mind to enlightenment.” The tone of the important man’s voice was one used to getting his own way.

The Zen master smiled and said that they should discuss the matter over a cup of tea. When the tea was served the master poured his visitor a cup. He poured and he poured and the tea rose to the rim and began to spill over the table and finally onto the robes of the wealthy man. Finally the visitor shouted, “Enough. You are spilling the tea all over. Can’t you see the cup is full?”

The master stopped pouring and smiled at his guest. “You are like this tea cup, so full that nothing more can be added. Come back to me when the cup is empty. Come back to me with an empty mind.”

Most of us would have read similar versions of the above. I don't think any will have any problem understanding the lesson within, as it is being told in a manner as simple as possible. However, not many will truly be able to practice what is being preached here - to keep an open mind. That is easier said than done, as one of the hardest feat for a human being is to be able to look at oneself. One thing that often intrigues me is topics about the workings of the mind.

An incident with Albany last year convinced me the power of suggestion. During play, it is common for children to big themselves up. i.e. "My power is 10 times yours!" etc. One of ours ended up in an argument where I was trying to convince Albany that a million is more than a thousand. 

"Nooooooo," Albany said. "My teacher said than a thousand is MORE than a million."

I tried reasoning with her. She could have forgotten what she heard, misinterpreted or misheard. It could even be a slip of tongue by the teacher. She insisted none of the above was possible. I told Albany that the reason was inconsequential. Most importantly, I wanted her to know a million is indeed bigger than a thousand. To my surprise, she was unyielding. I felt a little hurt because I took things the bad way. I saw it as my little girl could not trust that her daddy always meant well and would always provide her the correct advice or information to his best knowledge. Of course, she didn't mean it that way. It was just a concoction of pride generated from over-confidence, sprinkled with innocence and a dash of ignorance. 

Over two weeks, she insisted she was right and the only thing I could do was asking her to check with her teacher when school reopens. During that period, I kept pondering about the incident. Philosophically, a thousand can be more than a million in more than one way. For a start, a thousand has more alphabets in it than a million. At that instance, there wasn't an argument who was right, mathematically. However, it reminded me of the high possibility that when we eventually have more sophisticated debates in issues with no definite answers, I will be equally guilty for not "emptying the cup" as Albany, with our pride, preconceived ideas and knowledge in our ways. It was a reminder for me to open up my mind to view things from newer perspectives when our topics become more complex in the future.

I consider myself as an open minded person. I am not blood-thirsty for knowledge but I never shun at opportunities to gain more. That was why I was willing to take on the work required for Savvy Steve's house. Painting on plastered bricked wall was new to me, as opposed to the concrete walls we usually dealt with in Singapore. I did the laminate flooring for the whole house all by myself, with no guidance from anyone, having prior knowledge or experience. I paved the exterior myself. Not a perfect job but it functions as it should and is aesthetically pleasing enough for me. I learn to service my car and cook. Eventually, I'll learn to grow grape vines and shit.

Having said all that, I am not immune from having close minds. After all I live in different realities just like everyone else. When the boss told me to drill through 8mm thick steel with a hand drill, I suggested that in order to drill that many of the holes required, it was best to rent a magnetic drill. He simply said it could be done. It was a simple case of different realities. In my first job in Perth, we drilled hundreds of holes with magnetic drills and I could see how well it did the job as compared to a human being holding a hand drill. For the boss, it was possible using a simple hand drill because he probably had done it before as well.

"Please show me," I said. My mind was open. And he did. The method was tedious but the result was satisfactory. I didn't mind the harder work. I saw that as a chance to take my drilling skills to a acceptable level. That could only benefit me in the future (which it later did, another story another day) The next close mind incident was within the same job. I asked my boss why he only bought a set of drill bits for each size.

"Because that is enough to do the job," he replied.

"Impossible," I thought, taking reference from the tons of drill bits my contractors had to use for our steel or aluminum facade work back in my project management days in Singapore. Well, those were supposed to be the experts and I watched them do their work day in day out. 

"The bits go dull in no time, don't they?" I asked the boss. We call it blunt in Singapore and they call it dull.

"Well, no problem. We'll simply sharpen 'em," he said.

As the story goes, he eventually had to sharpen our drill bits several times. No matter how many times I stood behind him and how carefully I observe, I couldn't sharpen the bits in my spare time. The other workers didn't even want to try doing it once. For a few years, it remained a regret. Until recently....

We had some drilling to do for some improvements in the workshop and I managed to grab hold of the boss and requested for a new demonstration, since the last one a few years ago. This time I was determine to learn the trick, by hook or by crook.

I stood behind him once again to watch. The process was similar and I felt I didn't grasp anything in addition to the previous times. Trust me, it is one of the most disappointing thing to try sharpening a drill bit only to find it that it was duller than before. When I re-attempted it, I dreaded a repeat of the previous failures.

Imagine my surprise when it worked. I actually felt an adrenaline shot and did a fist pump. The workers took the bits and finished off a couple of holes. Again, they didn't show any interest to try it themselves ....

Now, imagine if I return to Singapore and told contractors that the drill bits could be sharpened and reuse many, many times, like how a kitchen chopper could be. We don't throw away a chopper every time it gets blunt. I think my contractors will think I am crazy or tell me, "Mana wu eng?" I wonder if even one of them will ask me, "Can meh? Show me?" Even for small contractors who were essentially their own "boss" will probably not bother to save a few dollars to sharpen a drill bit. However, good steel drill bits range from a few dollars to double digits each, exponentially as it increases with size. That's easily a few hundred dollars for a small project. They probably wouldn't know it only take less than a minute to sharpen an M24 drill bit and even faster for the small ones.

For a nation that believes in spending money to solve all problems and little in everything else, I can only see skills from all industries deteriorating. The belief that spamming 10 cheap unskilled workers will out produce 1 expensive skilled worker anyway isn't wrong, just shortsighted. There will be a day where no one is cheap enough and we cannot afford robots. Then we realise no one is left with the knowledge or skills to run the show and have to start from zero again. Hopefully that doesn't happen in my lifetime.


  1. "Eventually, I'll learn to grow grape vines and shit."

    CB, so old liao still need to learn how to shit??