I occasionally receive emails or comments from discouraged woodworkers. Local woodworker Keith recently emailed me the following and I decided to give him a woodworking pep talk:
Just watched your video on your outdoor sitting bench. You make everything look so damn easy. I am in awe of how everything you touch comes out so perfect. What you do is a piece of art that some of us strive for but will never attain. Thank you for showcasing your talent. The only problem someone like myself has is I won’t do anything that you have done, because when it doesn’t look like yours, I feel I have failed. That is another reason I won’t be nearly as good. You have to practice to be good and I expect perfection because I see you make it look so easy. Still enjoy watching you work. Your neighbor, Keith
Keith’s mentality is something I encounter a lot. Many folks are easily discouraged when they see seemingly average people putting out exceptional work. I consider my own work better than average but not exceptional. Keith is being very kind. But we tend to be our own worst critics, right? Understanding where your work fits into the greater hierarchy can be a good thing if coupled with a dose of humility and an optimistic perspective. But not everyone has an optimistic perspective and knowing where you sit on the scale of skill could sour your taste for the craft. I’d hate to see that happen. So here’s a modified version of the pep talk I gave Keith and it’s one that just might resonate with you too.
Woodworking (as a hobby) should be fun. If it’s no longer fun, for whatever reason, it’s time for some reflection. Keith is comparing his work to mine but is that a fair comparison? Let’s look at our virtual resumes. I have been doing nothing but woodworking for the last 12 years. Not only that, the last decade has been spent teaching others the fundamentals of the craft. As a result, I’ve gotten pretty good at the basics. I now have very high standards for basic joinery, basic design, and overall finish quality. Because The Wood Whisperer is a business and the primary lifeblood of my family, I have invested in nice equipment and I have a great space to do my work. My brain is in this stuff 24/7 and my livelihood allows/requires me to improve every day. My guess is that most people reading this are not in the same situation. You probably work hard at a full-time job and you’re limited to woodworking on nights and weekends when you’re not spending time with your family. Bottom line is this: I’m on my path and you’re on yours. Both paths are valid, necessary, and worthy and both are capable of facilitating the production of beautiful projects that will dazzle onlookers in their own unique ways.
Keith used the word “perfect” in his comments but I can assure you my work is anything but. See some of my lessons learned from past projects here. And something Keith may not realize is that there are MANY woodworkers out there who make me look like a rank amateur. I’m very aware of this fact but I don’t let it get me down. Everything is relative and we all have our place in the hierarchy. So how do I manage to not be depressed by the fact that I am not as good as someone else? Because those people are the genesis of my own self-improvement. By example, when I used to sit in my garage looking at pictures of “dream shops” I never once thought to myself, “That dude sucks! Must be nice. I’ll never have a shop like that because I can’t afford it.” Instead, I thought “That’s impressive. I’d love to have a shop like that. What steps can I take today that put me on a path that eventually leads to that dream shop?” Ten years later this happened.
So the same idea applies to observing the work of others. You shouldn’t view someone else’s skill and success as a reflection of how bad your situation is. Instead, use their work to help you set goals and discover ways to improve so you can put yourself on that path to greatness. And let’s clarify what I mean by greatness. We can’t all be “the best” woodworker but we can be our personal best woodworker. So as you move along your path to greatness, you should gauge your progress not by how close you are to the end-all-be-all, but by how much you’ve improved over your previous attempts. If you notice that project after project you just aren’t getting better, you need to find out why and squash it. My guess is it’s a mental block and not a physical one.
When you’re finished with a project, take time to evaluate what it is you don’t like about it. If you can spot the flaws, you can usually identify when and why they occurred. To quote GI Joe, that’s half the battle. The other half is actually easier since it only requires a little research. Figure out how to prevent those mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again. And if we’re being completely honest with ourselves, most imperfections are a result of laziness, not just honest blunders. An honest mistake is something like not realizing that the table saw causes tearout when doing cross-cuts. But after you do some research and realize that you should use a zero clearance insert and a sacrificial fence on your miter gauge, the only reason you’ll have tearout again is because you made the conscious decision to take a short cut.
So be patient, be realistic, be honest about the nature of your mistakes, and most importantly: be inspired! Let the work of your betters pull you up instead of knocking you down and learn to be OK with the fact that there will always be someone who can do the job better than you. Run your own race and beat your own score. Be the master of your own destiny by setting a goal and plotting a practical course that gets you there. Don’t just daydream about what could be. Take an action today that helps make that dream a reality. Before you know it, you’ll find yourself sitting higher in the hierarchy. And if all goes well (somewhat ironically) you won’t give a crap about your place in the hierarchy simply because you’re having fun making things and doing what you love.