Are You a Pinsetter?

posted in: Uncategorized | 43

June 22nd, 2011


My grandpa was born in 1927. His first job was a shoe shine boy, making a nickel for polishing shoes of the old timers sitting at the bar. That’s right, little kids were allowed in bars, so long as they were shining shoes or some other very important public service.


His second job was as a newsboy. I can’t make this stuff up. As the son of Sicilian immigrants, this kid had to really reach for the stars. So he slang newspapers on the south side of Chicago.


The real step up though, was when my gramps hit high school and landed a job at the local bowling alley. Yup, he become a pinsetter.


Being a pin boy back in those days was actually a glamorous job. He was granted free bowling and a big ole nickel for every game he set. A game cost 15 cents, so the house cleared 10 cents per game.  But apparently those 5 cent pieces add up fast. He learned the skills necessary to quickly drop the pins and also the agility to avoid getting splattered by errant pins and bowling balls. And from his stories, it sounds like quite the task.


It got me wondering though, about the jobs we do today and all the special training and learning we put into these jobs. A lot of effort goes into what we end up spending 8 hours a day (or more) doing. And remember, that ends up being 2000 hours a year.


If you’re doing what you love, then I guess it doesn’t matter. But if not, are you investing your energy, time, and passion into a job that will one day be a relic of a time long forgotten? Sure, dodging bowling pins and bowling balls makes for a good story, but I’m not so sure I want to be a pin setter.



43 Responses

  1. I need to travel. I need to travel. I need to travel. I will teach overseas. I will cook overseas. I will do anything to not behind this computer!! 🙂 I just ran into a women in the break room and she said “Is it Friday….. and I said “I was thinking that on Monday.” That should not be the talk in the break room!! Time to get out. I no longer want to be a pinsetter. I want my break room talks to be. “I have this student who is learning English so well… her family invited me to their house in Silva Spain….la la la.” Something like that! 🙂

    Nice Post!

    • Meg you know we are ready to hit the road. My goal is to stay relevant, and sometimes I wonder what it is I am doing all day…

      So yes, travel times make more sense to me.

  2. and thanks for the link LOVE too. 🙂

  3. Baker Lawley

    Great story! I once bowled at a bar in Chicago that still had human pinsetters–apparently they have to dodge drunk bowlers’ throws all night. So we sent them a tip in one of the finger holes at the end of our game. I guess it’s also weird to be doing a job that already is a relic of time!

    Such a great way to consider your everyday efforts–are they making a legacy, or will they make for a funny story? Or, maybe, both?

    Nice work here.

    • Baker, I think I’ve been to that same spot! Southport Lanes I think…

      Strange, because I don’t do much bowling. The thing is, I’m definitely interested in strange and unusual jobs. But what I fear is that history will look back on most of us and just pity the boredom and lack of relevancy we have.

      So maybe, I do want to be a pinsetter 🙂

  4. Monica | Authentic Abundance

    According to Malcolm Gladwell, research shows that you need 10000 hours of practice to be an expert. You’d better love what you’re doing if you’re going to spend that kind of time. On the other hand, that’s about 5 years of a full-time job. How many of us have spent that long in a job we weren’t thrilled about?

    But the experience and the story are nothing to sneeze at. Maybe without spending that ho-hum time, we would never go on to do the things that really inspire. But how do we make the switch from safe and easy to energizing and hard?

    • Monica, you bring up a strong point. It only takes 5 years to be an expert, so are we doing the work that we really want to be an expert in? I mean, I would rather be an expert blues guitar player, but I sure don’t play 8 hours a day.

      But I should be.

      As for the switch to safe and easy, I’m not sure there is a blanket answer for everyone. Why do people stay in the safe and easy?

  5. Laura M. | smash your t.v. and have adventures

    Wow. This just goes to remind me that people used to do the work before machines. I didn’t even know there were human pinsetters (or that bowling went so far back in time)!

    I’ve often wondered what jobs people would be doing if technology and internet were not big monsters. Would there be more farmers? More craftsmen? More people with trade skills? More bums? Who knows…

    • Good questions… it definitely makes one think.

      The strange thing about these big monsters is that it takes a lot of people to create them and keep them alive. It’s as though society requires humans for food to process junk we don’t need.

  6. Philipp Knoll

    I’m almost certain that a pin setter is not what you want to be…

    I realize how important choosing the right things to engage in is more and more every day. Live is too short to be doing anything you are less than crazy about. If that is the case you are better of quitting, living poor and sitting at a rock staring at the ocean. At least your mind will clear and the time will come when you figure out the right direction for yourself.

    This never happens as long as you are in a job that keeps you busy. Its how our society works. We put kids to school to learn to function well in our society. To fit in and don’t question the system because we have years of training doing what teachers tell us to.

    Then we are told to get a good education to grab a job. But even the best education hardly leads to a fulfilling job. You are still operating on someone else’s schedule. That is just not natural. I’m not saying that everybody should quite. Then there wouldn’t be anyone building all the MACs etc.
    But the corporate cultures needs some adjustment for sure.

    My advice to my kids, once they are out of school, will be to take time off and not head into any education they are not certain about right away. Take time off, enjoy life and find your purpose. Then do that and live a fulfilled life.

    You already announced that post in one of your comments – great to hear a story about your ancestors as well!

    • Philipp, your kids are very fortunate to have you as their pops. We are trained at an early age to engage in busy-ness and to do things we aren’t interested in doing. Once we learn that this is what life is, we end up settling into jobs we hate and lives that are not fulfilling.

      We must must break that cycle.

  7. I love your blog. Like the artistic feel here. Much different than typical self-help generics out there.
    And that old-timey picture. Puts us in the right mood straight from the start. Gold.
    The most important is the message however.
    Bone chilling, really.
    Keep writing.
    You do it well. Very well.

    • Derek, those may be some of the kindest and most generous words dropped on my writings to date. So thanks for that. 🙂

  8. Excellent post David. There are people all over the world for whom the idea of “doing what you love” is an utterly ridiculous concept. People like your Grandfather who need to whatever they can to build a better future. People like the over 1 billion who live in chronic hunger who struggle to survive each day.

    This is why Kent and I feel that it is not just a good idea to live our NVR life, it is our responsibility. We – like most of your readers – have a choice. So we need to honor those that don’t by making the most of our blessed lives and then find ways to expand opportunity.

    Thanks for the link love – BTW. 🙂

    • Caanan, No vacation required is exactly the heart of it all. You and Kent have a good mindset going. We are part of a small tiny minority in human history, so we must do everything we can to live wildly.

      I’m glad we can connect this community of like minded people doing what they must to make this life on their own terms.

  9. I remember digging potatoes for a neighbor for 75 cents per hour. Then I lugged the Des Moines Register paper at 6 am in the morning for a few years – and in sub-zero weather. That was all about learning the value of hard work.

    It paid off in terms of the work I now do, but I can’t say I love it. It just happens to be a good job that allows me to work at home and afford the things we like to do. If I could transfer my skills into something that is location independent, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

    • Don, it sounds like you know the value of hard work, and maybe even more importantly, the value of a dollar.

      You seem to have everything you need for location independence. I’m curious to know what actually keeps you back…

  10. That gives me a lot to think about. Very cool idea for a post. Although pin setting does sound fun I don’t think I want to be one either.:)

    • Cailin, precisely! 🙂 It’s one thing to have a neat job, but I do wonder about how relevant the things we do all day really are in the grand scheme of where we want to be…

  11. I wanna be the guy knocking down the pins…:)

  12. Right message, we need to do exactly what we like, sad that it’s not possible for many, and difficult for most, included myself. I won’t stop pursuing it though 🙂

    • It’s strange that we’ve created a system where it’s so hard to do what we love. Especially considering we live in such a unique time in human history.

      Btw, very cool blog you’ve got there!

  13. Todd | Channelingmyself

    Hi David,

    Doing what we love is truly a blessing if we can manage to put ourselves into that situation. For myself, I would prefer a simpler lifestyle being completely off the grid if I could.

    • Todd, I’ve seen you write about that before. Very interesting goal, considering you take to the internet so well, blogging, etc.

      Off the grid life is definitely alluring, but the absurd amount of knowledge available on the web is too tempting for me to give up.

  14. I’d much prefer to be a pin setter than a commercial copywriter. Lucky for me, there are no ad reps or bowling alleys nearby so I can avoid both.

    • Nice way of reasoning it out… working backwards!

      It definitely looks like you do what you love, so keep that inspiration flowing!

  15. rob white

    I love your humor, David. Indeed, your grandfathers drive is admirable and is what makes America great. All he was doing was reaching deeper and setting his aims and aspirations higher and higher. Whenever we feel stuck consider it this inspirationally dissatisfying feeling a gift from our creative essence. It wants to get going! We must not allow ourselves to remain pinsetters forever. We are a supreme beings with superlatively creative skills – lets use them!

    • Rob, that’s exactly the right point. Being a pinsetter may not be such a bad thing, but making a life of it could be a disaster.

      We can’t let our talents, passions, and enthusiasms dry up because of jobs or lives that give us skills that will become irrelevant.

  16. Annie Andre


    Although i think i WOULD want to be a pin setter if i were a professional bowler because then i could live and breath bowling, meet other bowlers and get to bowl for free. That’s living and breathing your passions.

    I would defenitly not want to be a cog in a wheel. Because that’s really what most people are these days. They are some cog in a huge corporate wheel and you make them money all day long. There is no joy except in the money but that’s the price you pay. It’s like selling your soul to the devil.. So evil..

    • Oh Annie, only you! 🙂

      Well yes, you’re right. There is certainly a benefit to pinsetting if it means living and breathing your passions.

      I’m amazed at how easily we sell ourselves short though. I guess that’s my main take away from all of this. I want to learn and live so I am forever relevant (or at least for all my days).

      • Annie Andre

        Oh David,
        I was trying to be contrarian to you. i was tired of always agreeing with you. 🙂

        • I can appreciate that. All this agreeing around here can make a person ill 🙂

          That said, keep an eye out for me. I’ll do my best to give you a healthy resistance!

  17. matt weezy

    ahhh. the silvan learning center in Spain!

  18. this blog is awesome because of that picture!! great relic. ahh. love it.

    • Right?! It makes me want to be a pinsetter just for the great mustache!

  19. Hmmmm…there are so many things we do in life that is like being a pin setter. We go through the rote motions of life sometimes. It can be hard to break free of that template life. It is interesting to look at this from a historical and generational perspective. Back then, living life on the edge or wanting to live passionately just was not in the cards for most. It was survival and there were limited ways to do it for most. How amazing the different opportunities we have to live differently.

    Great post!

    • We have the opportunity. This is exactly why we must run with it and not let ourselves get stuck in jobs or careers that aren’t in line with our passions and/or with little future relevance.

  20. Very good point. The jobs that are here today probably won’t be here tomorrow. And that’s especially true today with the rapid speed of technological advances. But I think it means so much more to find something that gives you meaning. But I’m guessing that if a job gives you meaning than it probably won’t be phased out by any kind of technology.

    • Steve, I think you’re right. Do what you love and you’ll always be relevant. (Or at least you will find a way to be relevant)

  21. ed from St Louis

    in 1957 I was a pin boy at a bowling alley in St Louis. There were machines that would position the pins on the alley, but we had to pick the pins up and put them in a rack on the machine. It was hot in the pit, and really hard work.

    After a bowler bowled, the pin boy would pick up the ball, set it on a ramp and push it so it would roll back up a ramp at the other end to the bowler. Then after picking up the pins and putting them in the rack the pin boy would pull a cord and the machine would lower them down and set the pins back on the alley.

    Some bowlers, after drinking a bit, would bowl really hard and try to hit the pins so they would bounce up and hit the pin boy.
    This was fun for them.

    When they did this the pin boy would leave one of the pins out of the rack when they set them up the next time, and the bowler could never get a strike and most likely would get a split. And the pin boy would return the ball so it would not make it up the ramp at the bowlers end and would roll back toward the pins. They would then have to walk down the alley and pick their ball up. The bowlers would never figure out our little tricks.

    And yes for all this work, and fun, we got about 15 cents a game plus tips. It was spending money then.

  22. Judy Hicks

    Thank you, Ed,

    I was beginning to think I had a poor memory. As a kid we would bowl at Fort Scott ( a section of. The Presidio Army post) in San Francisco.

    It was as you described. It took someone to place the pins in the rack at the start and through the game. This was in the mid 1950s.

    Besides 10 cent bus fares on the local bus (the Muni) and human pin setters I sometimes feel I was brought up on another planet.

    Kindest regards to you,


  23. Cam Duncan

    I was a human pinsetter when I was 13. I remember stand (and running) back and forth along a plank catwalk, with no safety of any sort at that time. There were countless times when I would get nailed by flying pins. My Dad told me it “builds character”. All I thought was that it built my bruises and bloody nose count. After a while and becoming a pin target, I became a bowling pin ‘ninja’ and anticipated flying pins, just by the sound of a ball rumbling down the lane and by the sound of it’s speeding approach. I did much better money wise. I made one dollar per game, which wasn’t bad for a kid in the early 70’s and it mounted up if all 12 lanes were going.
    I’m now semi-retired, working at a bowling alley as a mechanic, fixing 5 & 10 pin automated machines.
    I sometimes think back when I was a kid as a human pinsetter and things were much simpler.

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