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One day a boy was running home from school. Tucked snuggly underneath his arm was a short instruction booklet. Splashed on the front page, in big bold letters, was the title: “THE ONLY GUIDE TO BUILDING A BIRD HOUSE YOU’LL EVER NEED.” The boy, who was quite curious and enjoyed learning how things were put together, was excited to show the booklet to his dad.

The boy’s dad was a carpenter who ran his business out of his workshop in the backyard of their home. The boy ran straight through the front yard, along the side of the house, and into the back yard to find his father. As he was expecting, he found him in his workshop putting the finishing touches on a cabinet.

“Dad!” the boy shouted as he burst through the workshop door. “Look what I got at school today!”

The boy’s dad wiped the sawdust off his hands and took the booklet from his son. As he flipped through the pages he smiled.

“This is pretty good,” he said.

“Can we make one?” asked the boy.

“Of course. Let me finish this cabinet, we’ll have dinner, and then we’ll get started,” said the boy’s dad as he handed the booklet back to the boy. “Go have a read through it before dinner.”

The boy took the booklet to his room, laid down on his bed, and began to read through the instructions step by step.

After dinner, as was promised, the boy followed his dad to the workshop to start on the birdhouse. The boy’s dad lifted him onto the workshop bench and he leaned back against a table across from him.

“Did you read through your instructions?” asked the boy’s dad.

“I did,” replied the boy. “First what we do is…”

“Hold on,” said the boy’s dad. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to teach you how to make a birdhouse myself.”

“Why,” said the boy.

“Because I want to teach you how to make a birdhouse like a real carpenter,” replied the boy’s dad. “Would you like that?”

“Okay,” said the boy apprehensively. “And that means we don’t use instructions?”

“Not exactly,” said the boy’s dad. “It just means we understand that instructions are general guidelines. They’re guidelines written by a person who figured out a pretty good way of doing something, then decided to put their way down on paper in a simple way so people could do what they did.”

“And we don’t want to do what they did?” asked the boy looking confused.

“We want to build a birdhouse,” replied the boy’s dad. “But we want to build our own birdhouse.”

The boy stared blankly at his dad.

Noticing his boy’s puzzled look, the boy’s dad continued trying to explain himself. “Instructions are useful in that they can get us headed in the right direction. But, it’s easy to rely on instructions too much and trap yourself into thinking the steps in front of you are the only way it can be done. Does that make sense?”

“I think so,” said the boy slowly. “The instructions I got at school for making a birdhouse were written by one person who figured out a good way of making a birdhouse. They wrote them down in a way that a lot of people would be able to understand, but that doesn’t mean that it’s the only way to build a birdhouse.”

“Exactly,” said the boy’s dad. “When you blindly follow someone else’s instructions, you don’t leave yourself any room to think, to solve problems that are unique to your project. And thinking and solving problems is what makes building something fun. The unique way you solve the problems of the project is what makes whatever you build your own: it makes it a work of art.”

The boy nodded as the boy’s dad finished speaking.

“I think we’re ready to get started,” said the boy’s dad. “What’s our first problem?”

The boy kicked his feet as he sat on the workshop bench and stared at them while they alternated going in and out. “Umm… We don’t have anything to make the birdhouse out of?”

“Right,” said the boy’s dad. “How can we solve that problem?”

“We could get some wood,” replied the boy in a way that sounded more like a question than a statement.

“Exactly,” said the boy’s dad. He started moving around the workshop, collecting several pieces of wood and bringing them over to the workbench across from the boy. “What’s our next problem.”

“Well…” muttered the boy as he thought. “The wood we have is too big. So, we should cut it.”

The boy’s dad uncovered the table saw and grabbed a pencil and a tape measure. “Here. You help me measure, I’ll mark the wood, and then we can cut it.”

The boy hopped down from the work bench and grabbed the tape measure out of his dad’s hand. He walked over to the first piece of wood and extended the tape measure along the side of one of the wood pieces. The boy’s dad marked the wood with the pencil and placed it on the table saw to cut.

“There’s many different ways you can make a birdhouse. Of the many different ways, you’re the one solving the problems and making the choices that determine how we are going to make this one. You’re putting some of yourself into this birdhouse,” said the boy’s dad as he put another pencil mark on a piece of wood.

“What if I don’t solve the problems right?” asked the boy. “What if I don’t make the right choices?”

“To the craftsman there is no right and wrong. There are just choices you like and choices you don’t like. If you don’t like the way you solved one of your problems, try again. And keep trying until you feel good about it,” replied the boy’s dad.

“Oh,” said the boy. “That sounds kind of hard.”

“It is,” replied the boy’s dad. “But there’s no feeling like it when you’re done.”

The boy and the boy’s dad continued working like this for a couple of hours. The boy’s dad would ask the boy what the next problem for them to solve was, the boy would answer, and the two of them would come up with a way to solve the problem. Sometimes their solution would work on the first try. Sometimes they would have to try twice to get it right. Sometimes they would have to try several times. But eventually, they had constructed a birdhouse.

“Alright,” said the boy’s dad. “Any more problems?”

The boy walked around the workbench looking at the birdhouse. “I think it looks kind of dull.”

“Should we paint it?” asked the boy’s dad.

“I think we should paint it blue,” said the boy. “It’s my favourite colour.”

The boy’s dad walked to the corner of the workshop, moved a few cans of paint and stain to the side, and came back to the workbench with a small can of blue paint. He turned around, opened a drawer in the bench, and pulled out two paint brushes. Taking turns, the boy and the boy’s dad dipped their paint brushes into the paint and covered the birdhouse.

As they were getting close to finishing painting, the boy said, “I hope I’m happy when I grow up.”

The boy’s dad paused. “I hope you are too,” he said before he continued to brush the paint onto the birdhouse. “What makes you think you won’t be?”

“I dunno,” said the boy. “It just seems like it’s a lot harder to be happy when you grow up. Jacob’s parents got a divorce because Jacob said they weren’t happy anymore. And I overheard my teacher Ms. Fitzpatrick telling another teacher she wasn’t happy being a teacher anymore. And I heard mom telling you she just wishes you could be happier.”

The boy’s dad put the paintbrush down and turned toward his son.

“Oh,” said the boy’s dad. “I’m sorry you had to hear all of that.”

“Is it true?” asked the boy. “Is it harder to be happy when you grow up? I’m twelve and it seems pretty easy to be happy.”

“I think it can be. But, being happy when you’re grown up is a little different than when you’re twelve.” said the boy’s dad.

“How?” asked the boy.

“I think what Jacob’s parents, your teacher, and me and your mom were talking about were certain things you need to be happy when you grow up. When you don’t have some of those things, it can make it more difficult. I think you just have to do your best to get those things.”

 “What are the things that make you happy?” asked the boy. “And how do you know those things are going to make you happy?”

“It’s just kind of the way it is,” said the boy’s dad. “You hit a certain age and you start to want what your parents had and what other people your age have.”

“It seems kind of silly to me,” said the boy.

The boy’s dad picked up his paintbrush and started painting the birdhouse again.

“I think this is the best birdhouse ever made,” said the boy to his father.

“I think so too,” replied the boy’s dad.

MORAL: Life is a birdhouse - you don’t always have to follow the instructions.