“Thy lyfe so short. The craft so longe to lerne.”
I like to do a little woodworking from time to time. When I was first getting started with it, I was limited by my tools and my skill, and for quite a while I really felt that limitation. I was frustrated, not just by those limitations, but at my lack of ability to appreciate these first steps into this new world. I knew it was something I would eventually enjoy, but I struggled to love the process of building the skill. For a couple of years I tinkered halfheartedly with various projects. My wife would often ask me on days when I looked bored, “Why don’t you go do some woodworking?” And I would reply with all the reasons why that wasn’t a viable option.
My wife, Jen, is a very talented artist. It’s easy to look at her and think “Wow, I wish I were that talented.” But she has been working her whole life to develop the skills she now possesses, and when she talks about “getting better” she’s referring not to a certain level of achievement, but to a deeper understanding of her mediums, techniques, and approach. Her learning process never ends, and she loves every second of it. I know from experience that there are times when she feels frustrated by something, but she never throws in the towel and says “That’s it. I can’t do it.” Her love for process is inspiring to me.
Looking back, I can see that I missed out on a few solid years of learning woodworking skills because I focused on the “why-nots” instead of the “how-to’s.” And I’m sorry to say that I’ve done the same thing to many other potential skills. I missed out on what I now believe to be the most important truth about skill-building: It’s about the process, not the product. Whether we’re designers, artists, musicians, construction workers, truck drivers, chefs…whatever, we don’t learn much from the destination, we learn from the journey.
I have always struggled to love difficulties and challenges. I’m often engaged in battle with an inner voice that says “Hey look! The path of least resistance is right over there!” And for a long time I gave in to that voice. I will not pretend that the process of learning and mastering a skill is not difficult and time consuming. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. That’s a daunting number to come to grips with at the outset. But I think there comes a time when, like my artist/wife, you fall in love with the process and the practice. Suddenly, practicing your scales ceases to be drudgery and becomes part of you and your creative process. At that point 10,000 hours just doesn’t seem like enough.
These days, I have adequate skill in woodworking. And I’m cool with that because I’m learning to appreciate the process. I’ve learned to buddy up with failure and to stop expecting perfection of myself out of the gate. It’s a great feeling to stand back and look at a finished project and take pride in it, but I’ve learned that that pride is founded in the work it took to get there, not in the final product.