My days back as a student at the University of Maryland were some I will never forget. Moving away from home for the first time. Getting along in a large campus and being exposed to many new people holding diverse viewpoints. And, a class schedule and structure that was very different than it was back in high school.
Basically, college was set up so you attended each of your classes about three hours total a week. Sounds easy, right?
Well, that was all of the CLASS work you got… the homework, however, took many hours to accomplish. And, if you didn’t keep up, you were lost in the weeds.
That’s exactly what happened to me the first semester of my Sophomore year. Inexperience got the better of me. I thought I had this college thing down pat. I took a blow-off class everyone told me I could ace even if I didn’t show up. And, as expected, I blew it off.
That class ended up being the only F I ever got in my entire academic career. I had failed what is considered one of the easiest classes on campus. And I was not happy with myself.
Why is it that some woodworkers will look equally hard at their failures? Could it be that they made their goof up on a prize piece of highly figured wood? Is it that there is only so much time available for woodworking, and that time spend making mistakes is considered time wasted? Or, is it that they expect that they will never make a mistake – ever?
Certain skills in woodworking require a tremendous amount of practice and skill to execute properly. One woodworker I know learned how to cut beautiful hand-cut dovetails on his own. Sure, he watched the videos and read the books. But, he gained the experience by setting up a stack of scrap wood blanks and cutting one or two sample dovetails a few times each week.
His first attempts looked as if they had been chewed by deranged beavers – gappy and uneven. But, as he progressed over months of practice, he started to notice where he was making his mistakes. Maybe he was not holding the saw properly. Maybe he didn’t have his chisel perfectly perpendicular to the bench. Maybe he wasn’t marking the cut lines properly. Whatever the problem, he identified it and figured out a way to correct the issue.
Today, his dovetails are clean, tight and pretty as a picture.
Other woodworkers may be experiencing a fear of failure. Last weekend’s quick poll asked if you had ever bent wood for a project. Nearly half of those who voted said they never have, but always wanted to. For those who voted that way, why not? Hey, I messed up my first attempt at bent lamination. It’s in my scrap bucket right now, cut into multi-layered pieces waiting for the weather to cool down so it can be burnt in my fire pit. Instead of saying, “I can’t do this,” I went back to the saw and planer and cut more strips to be laminated into bent pieces. The results the second time around were much better… and now I’m working on the rest of the project.
What happened after I got that F? I could have given up and felt sorry for myself, quit college and figured out what my next step was going to be. Instead, I learned a very valuable lesson about life. I sat down one afternoon and gave the direction of my college academic career a very stern looking over. Was I committed to this or not?
I took the report card with the F on it and taped it to the surface of my desk where it stayed through the rest of my Sophomore, Junior and Senior years. Every time I sat down to do homework, I reminded myself what I had done, where I had failed and how I needed to correct my situation. I studied harder, went to every class and sat in front. I budgeted my time carefully and made sure that I had my studies done before I knocked off for a cold one at the end of the day.
When I went to the mailbox to get my next report card, I just about fainted. Four A’s and one B. My best semester ever. I had taken my mistake, learned from it and became a much better student for it.
As woodworkers, I hope each of you takes the mistakes you make and learn from them. Understand why things went bad, and seek out ways to improve your work.
I remember once reading the signature line of a fellow woodworker on one of the forums I follow – “It’s OK to make mistakes, but it’s to your credit if you don’t make the same ones over and over again.”
So, go make your mistakes boldly. Learn from them. You’ll be a much better woodworker for it.