I don’t know who said it first (Robert Allen?), but there are a few quotes out there that say something like “Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.” There was a time when I would have dismissed that quote as something successful people say just to sell books. But there’s definitely truth to it and I truly believe it applies to anything you’re trying to get better at: exercise, diet, education, and yes, even woodworking. And it must be true because I wouldn’t be able to make a stupid Willy Wonka meme if it weren’t.
When you are first starting out in the craft, one of the best ways to progress quickly is to throw yourself into a project you’re interested in and then sink or swim. Most of us are resourceful enough to swim, even if it is just a doggy paddle. We can always work up to the breaststroke and synchronized swimming later. I personally believe that people do their best work and are most receptive to learning when the stakes are high and the results matter. There’s nothing wrong with taking an afternoon to practice joinery but don’t stay in practice mode too long. Start making things as soon as possible and even if they don’t turn out great, I guarantee you someone if your inner circle would appreciate owning your hand-made creations. Furthermore, every success you have on the project will be a solid reinforcement of your skills and every mistake you make will be memorable, assuring you won’t likely repeat the mistake again.
Because my “job” is to teach people woodworking, I often find myself sticking to what I know. It’s hard to teach something effectively if you don’t exhibit the confidence that comes with experience. But in the online space, we have a significant advantage over traditional media outlets in that we are allowed to screw up. In fact, we’re encouraged to by our fellow woodworkers! While some folks prefer to see a master woodworker execute a flawless joint, many more prefer to see a beginner or mid-level woodworker struggle through the process. The latter tends to provide a more relatable and dramatic story filled with excited expectation, miraculous victories, and depressing pitfalls. In other words, you get to see someone figure it out in the exact same way YOU will need to figure it out. As I approach my 10th year of doing videos online and after publishing my first book in traditional media, I have to constantly remind myself which camp I hail from.
In my most recent project, the Woven Panel Rolling Hamper, I had an opportunity to do something I haven’t done in a while: design on the fly. This is something I did extensively in older series like the Sculpted End Table and the Gadget Station and it’s something I wanted to return to along with making good on my recent promise to return to more detailed productions. While the hamper’s construction is fairly simple, the woven panels were something completely new to me. I designed it in SketchUp (with the help of my buddy Scott Seganti) but I wasn’t entirely sure it would work. After all, SketchUp doesn’t take into account how difficult it is to weave a panel while trying to connect multiple legs, rails, a bottom panel, and a back panel. Because I was investing significant time in building and filming the project, it actually could have ended in disaster and more than a little embarrassment. But much like a college student who writes a fantastic paper the same day it’s due, I sometimes do my best work under pressure.
The hamper project honestly wasn’t THAT much of a risk but it does serve as a good example of what I’m trying to convey: leave your comfort zone by exploring new techniques and new materials. Of course you’ll want to do at least some research so that you don’t do something unsafe or stupid, but don’t fall into that “paralysis by analysis” state of mind. Pick the project, design it well enough to get started, and start making some sawdust. Before you know it, you’ll be creating things you previously thought were beyond your grasp and you’ll pretty much be a woodworking hero to your friends and family.
Obviously, not everyone has the same aptitude for woodworking. Some folks need more hand-holding than others and there are certainly people out there who would benefit from a slower-paced instructional curriculum (like we provide in the Wood Whisperer Guild). But the above logic still applies even if you aren’t a naturally-gifted woodworking god. The key lies in knowing yourself and knowing your comfort zones. Find that line and set your next goal just beyond it. Do this on every project and you will get better!