Today is the first day of mowing my lawn for the year. I wasn’t too excited, but it needs to be done. As I’m mowing the lawn, the mower gets clogged with grass. I have to bend down, take out the bag, and stick my hand in the chute to get all the grass out. At first, I was trying my best on not getting dirty; I just wanted to mow it quickly and then get in the shower as fast as I could. I even contemplated putting gloves on so that I wouldn’t have to dirty up my hands. However, I realized that the only way to get the grass out quickly was to dive in, get the excess grass out, then continue on. When I did it, I was annoyed. But after doing it a few times, my annoyance went away and I noticed that I got more involved with mowing the lawn. In fact, I actually enjoyed mowing the lawn.
When I finished mowing the lawn, I looked more in my yard, and started pulling weeds out. I got out the shovel and pulled out the biggest one that I couldn’t pull out with my hands. I look over my lawn and start making plans in my head of what needs to be taken out, what plants to put in when I have time, and what other lawn work needs to be done. I was in the zone of taking care of the lawn.
So what brought this new attitude? I, at first, didn’t want to mow the lawn. But in the end, I ended up pulling out weeds and shoveling dirt out. The answer comes down to dirtying up my hands. As soon as my hands are dirty, I’m thinking, “Ahh, my hands are dirty, you might as well keep going.” But it’s not as if this was a bad thing. I was in the zone to work on my yard. With this, I was thinking of some other metaphorical hand-dirtying.
When I teach a class, I look over my notes before I do so and I get in the zone to teach the material. I get excited about it. When I get out of a philosophy conference, I’m psyched to read/write philosophy with more inspiration. When I listen to great music, I get inspired to bust out my own violin and start playing. These “hand-dirtying” techniques are motivational tools. It gets me psyched and in the zone of whatever activity I’m doing. I can remember when I was younger when I played soccer. I stayed away from the ball because I didn’t want to get too involved. However, there was a moment when the ball came to me and I kicked it. After that, I chased after the ball as much as I could. I was sweating hard and was getting dirty. I thought, “I’m already getting dirty from this, I might as well go all the way.” It seemed like a waste to get dirty for nothing.
That’s the beauty of it. Once you’re dirty, you don’t want that dirt to go to waste. You want to milk it as much as you can. If you want a great motivational tool, it isn’t speeches, it isn’t music (unless you’re trying to psych yourself for some recital piece), and it certainly isn’t forcing yourself to do the activity (after all, have you tried to force yourself to do calculus, for example?). The awe-inspiring motivational tool is dirtying your hands. This is what gets you psyched, this is what gets you in the zone. This pushes you forward and makes you want to complete the activity. I always look forward to teaching my philosophy classes because I’m always reading philosophy. I’m dirtying up my hands and in the zone. When I read about running and how the pros do it, I’m dirtying up my hands and in the mood to run. When I want to have a good race, I “dirty up my hands” by stretching and doing a few sprints. When I want to go to an art gallery, I “dirty up my hands” by reading some of the artists’ background before I head to the gallery. Dirtying up the hands is what moves us. Perhaps this is why people lead a mediocre life: they don’t even try to dirty up their hands. Why should they? They don’t want to get dirty. But dirtying up the hands is the difference between the heroic life and the couch potato. Dirtying up the hands is the difference between what Kierkegaard calls “the existing individual” as opposed to the individual who is just merely existing. Dirtying up the hands is what Nietzsche calls the Übermensch (the overman) as opposed to what he also calls the untermensche (the last man). Dirtying up the hands is living an engaged life.
Don’t just live in the world; engage yourself in it. You can only do this by dirtying up your hands. It’s better to have a life of struggles, conflicts, battles, worthy opponents, and experiences rather than a dull, average life. Even suffering is better than just sitting back, drifting in the mediocre herd. The first step to escape from the average world to heroic life is dirtying your hands.