Failure Required

We’ve been lying to you. The books, the magazines, the bloggers, the woodworking shows, the TV woodworkers, the tool companies, especially the tool companies. We’ve all been lying to you. Sorry. Put it under the heading of marketing and you’ll forgive us right? We had to. No other way to keep selling you this stuff.

Look at it from our side. We’re working in a craft that’s been around in some form or another for a good 3000 years, give or take a couple of years. What can you keep selling people for gosh sake? Hammers? Once you have a hammer, how many more do you need? There’s a tool that’s been around for all those 3000 years of woodworking. It’s hard to improve on a hammer. [Although I did see a new framing hammer recently, hmm.]

What we’ve been selling you is “Mastery”. Master the dovetail, master any glue-up situation, master your table saw, master your sharpening. As if all it takes is reading one article or buying one video or attending one class or seminar and you’ll be proficient. As if one tool will make all the difference to your work and not the accumulation of knowledge, not the growth of your patience or the keenness of your eye. I hate to say it, but we’ve been lying to you about this mastery thing.

Because what is required is failure. Failure, as Thomas Edison I believe said, is the opportunity to try something again and get it right. He should know. It took him hundreds of tries before he got the right gas in a glass bulb to make a light bulb. The inventor of Formula 409 had 408 tries to get it wrong before getting it right. But failure is a hard sell. Failure is tough to get people to buy into. It’s as if by failing that they have let themselves down somehow. They have failed in more than just building a box or chair. But failure is required if you’re going to get good at something or get something right.

Failure is required because it’s the best teacher. Henry Petroski in his wonderful book: The Evolution of Useful Things talks about the the dictum “Form follows Function”. He makes a convincing argument that form doesn’t follow function at all. It follows failure. It comes through the littered battlefield of botched attempts, wrong moves, inspired failures that always precede hitting on something close to what you’re looking for. Until then it’s all missed attempts. Well-intentioned but short of the mark.

Now, I am not suggesting that you go to search out failure. Fear not, it will find you soon enough. I mean only to point out that getting it right is not something that comes easily or quickly. You will fail many times but it is through a swing and a miss that you learn how to see more clearly, plan more carefully, and to anticipate, to continue the analogy: the pitch.

Understand that we must continue to sell you this idea of Mastery. It sounds a good deal better than the Failure Program, but failure is a necessary part of it. A required course as it were and not to be missed if you want to be truly good at something.

Published in: on April 7, 2008 at 8:59 am  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Nice writing style. Looking forward to reading more from you.

    Chris Moran

  2. As a current member of one of the Mastery …er, Failure…no, wait…well, one of those programs…I can vouch for the value of failure. Not the kind that beats you down, and then kicks you. The other kind. The kind that might cause you and Mo to part company for a while. But you still keep your tools sharp, just in case he returns.

    Experience might be a good teacher. Success might breed success. But when I fail – and if I understand why – I can usually figure out what to do better, or differently, or more slowly the next time.

    And while it’s hard to fail, knowledge gained that way sticks around.

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