Learning from our Mistakes

I was teaching a class once for the Triangle Woodworkers Association in North Carolina. This was early in my traveling/ teaching career and I had made a simple mistake. I was living as I do now in Oregon, on the West Coast, and I had not started to practice for East Coast time. On the day of my flight, I got up at my normal time and traveled. I flew out from the West and got out to North Carolina later that evening. No problems yet.

The next day I started my workshop at a reasonable 8AM start time. But it was 5AM my time and I was a wreck at first. Eventually the caffeine kicked in, the guys in the front row kept me awake with comments, and all seemed well. I did okay I thought. I felt reasonably lucid and coherent and everyone there seemed to think the same or else the people in North Carolina are always extremely nice. The assembled were all very polite throughout the morning and lunch hour as I lectured and demonstrated.

I felt coherent until the afternoon. It was around 3pm when my brain started to fade. I was routing some grooves in a mitered box so I could insert some keys. I had made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box, and made a cut and turned the box the wrong way and before everyone assembled I made the wrong cut. Everyone saw it, everyone sat in silence as the guest of honor made the cut in the wrong direction on the box. I called a time-out right then and took a break.

The people there were so sympathetic to me. They came up and said, “Boy I saw you were gonna do that, but I didn’t know why.” or “You know I’ve done the same thing in my shop.” Or “Man, when you screwed up, I thought I was looking at me.” All sorts of lovely and kind comments, no doubt meant to make me feel good.

But what ended up happening was that everyone felt relieved. Instead of seeing something go together perfectly each time or hearing how it took the craftsman 20 years to learn how to do that right, here was somebody, who just like you and your buddy and everyone else, knew how to screw up. The chagrined look on my face was the tip-off that this was no set-up. It was real. It was a mistake. We had a laugh about it and then moved on. What else can you do?

The thing I learned that day, besides getting to the East Coast one day earlier to acclimate, was that the mistake meant more to these folks than anything. It made everyone there feel less alone, less like they were the only ones who screwed up. Everyone makes these bonehead moves it turns out. The real difference between the amateur and the professional is that the professional is so used to making mistakes that he recovers more quickly. It happens, walk outside, shake your fist at the sky, forgive yourself, get over it, move on and get back to work.

Now I haven’t made that same mistake ever again. I learned from it and that’s the point. We learn from our mistakes, and then get back to work.

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Published in: on April 9, 2008 at 8:41 am  Leave a Comment  
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