It’s Better to Be Lucky than Good – Episode 1


I’m not going to win any handyman-of-the-year awards, but I am reasonably competent about do-it-yourself tasks.

I think a lot of DIY folks are keenly interested in how things work. They’re either professional or amateur engineers, and their endless curiosity helps them really understand the world around them.

Not me. I’m totally comfortable not understanding anything around me as long as it works. If you ask me how a lot of different common technologies operate (TV, microwave oven, toilet), I might bumble through an explanation, but inside my head, I’m thinking, “Magic!”

That changes when things go wrong, though. A switch flips, and I’m suddenly keenly interested in all of the minutiae on how that specific thing really does work. 

My most recent education was for my sprinkler system. A couple of zones in the backyard stopped working, so sprinkler class was now in session.

I had already mastered the science of water running downhill, so I was solid on how it arrived to my house. I knew some of that water was directed to a bunch of sprinkler pipes divided into zones and connected to sprinkler heads in my yard. Check. The sprinkler controller box could be programmed to tell each zone when it needed to be on. As anyone would expect.

After that, though, things were a little fuzzy. Over the years, I had sometimes wondered how the sprinkler physically activated each zone based on signals from the controller box, but a firm belief in magic easily quelled my curiosity.

But now I needed to actually know how it worked, and a strong defense of my blissful ignorance approach to technology was made when it took me about 3 minutes on YouTube to suddenly become an expert. Turns out the wires from the controller box run out to “irrigation valves” which are connected to the main water supply and contain “solenoids” which open and close to allow water based on electrical signals from the controller box. Of course they do.

I remember seeing irrigation valve boxes in my and other people’s yards, but I wasn’t terribly interested in what they did, other than categorizing them as “sprinkler-related”. Until now.

And that’s when the music screeched to a stop. I already had a sense of foreboding when my YouTube research led to a lot of suggestions on, “How to locate buried irrigation valves.” Turns out that hidden / lost / buried irrigation valves is an extremely common problem (I suspect because many people like me ignore them until there’s an issue), and I was no exception. I couldn’t see any valve boxes in my yard at all; they’d probably been covered by grass and dirt over the last 12 years. 

Time is a great friend to DIY projects. Cooler weather, some rain, and a garden hose meant I wasn’t rushed to find the valves and fix the sprinkler. Using all of my new knowledge, I used a multimeter to confirm the problem. I used an underground wire locator to track the wires (until the distance became too great…). I did a lot of careful, exploratory digging. I even broke down and called a former colleague with a side sprinkler business. He confirmed that I was doing the right stuff and that if I engaged him / an expert it’d cost a lot (thanks for the “friend discount”, buddy) with no guarantee of success.

This is not a post on how to DIY fix your sprinkler, though. While I did the right things, I was still in the middle of my expert, scientific, disciplined search when I had an amazing breakthrough. The hunt was over, and it had absolutely nothing to do with my skills or efforts.

Last week, I had been looking for pictures of our little dog to develop and frame, and the boys even wanted some pillows with his happy face on them. It was a fun trip down memory lane, and I went through over a decade of pictures in about an hour. As I was flipping through them, a tiny thought took root and grew. Was there any chance that one of these pictures would be the pirate treasure map I needed? And then I saw this:


I don’t know why the missus took this picture of our backyard from an upstairs window shortly after we moved in. As pictures go, it leaves a bit to be desired. You can’t see the dog that well, half of the picture is our neighbor’s yard, and it’s the middle of winter with the previous owners having seriously neglected the beds. 

But to me, it was a work of art. Because you see those two circular green things? They’re completely covered by English ivy today. And those are my missing irrigation valves! I’ve still got to finish replacing the solenoids, but now that I know what a solenoid is that shouldn’t be a problem. 

Better Lucky than Good, but Both Is Best

We can’t control when good fortune strikes, so planning on it is unwise. However, when luck and skill do battle, my money is always on luck. There are countless times when I’ve observed luck win the day over skill. Sadly, a good number of those observations are personal, and I lost handily 🙂

The good news is that we don’t have to choose. Becoming good at everything you do gives you a firm measure of control over your life. Accepting luck’s wandering ways will let you welcome it with open arms when it comes and laugh good-naturedly when it doesn’t. I don’t resent the hours I spent expertly searching for my solution; I celebrate the added hours I was saved when luck decided to smile on me.

I’ve always tried to be the best at whatever I do, but as teased by the title of this post, I’ve had many more than one instance of good fortune. Some of them have changed my life, and I’ll chronicle them in due course. 

Whatever you’re doing in the week ahead, good luck!

4 thoughts on “It’s Better to Be Lucky than Good – Episode 1”

  1. I think I’ve been lucky about as often as I’ve been unlucky in life. I like to think the two have really balanced each other out, but maybe I’m just fooling myself!

    As far as locating the sprinkler boxes go, if the old photo doesn’t work out you could try a metal detector. The solenoids should have enough ferrous metal they can make a metal detector light up.

    1. I think many people focus on instances of bad luck, but I’m with you – I think the good and bad have at least evened out, and I may be sitting on a surplus 🙂

      The old photo worked like a charm. The valve covers were the “X marks the spot” I needed. It was a mess inside though! I may add a metal detector to my bag of tricks in the future, but I’ll want one of my youtube advisers to confirm it works before I make any investment.

  2. Hi Paul,

    As the quote (assigned to Thomas Jefferson) says: I find that the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.

    If you never had spent the time understanding the problem and possible solutions, you would never recognize the 2 green circles on the picture.

    Being a renter I, fortunately, don’t have to do much work at home. It is good because I’m not a skilled worker (I can say from Ikea furniture) and bad because I do not force myself out of the comfort zone to learn new stuff.

    All the best and good luck on the week to come as well 🙂


    1. Thanks Odysseus. I think you make a great point – I had shared my sprinkler woes with the family, and when I showed them the glorious photo, they didn’t see what it meant and couldn’t fathom my excitement 🙂

      I envy your status as a renter – I don’t have any deep desire to become handy around the house, but I force myself to learn things when I think I can do as good or better a job (and much cheaper…). Unfortunately some of the trades have bad incentives and “the market” fails to provide the best solution. Even though it can be stressful, I will say DIY victories are rather sweet!

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