Today I was feeling celebratory, having just completed compiling the photographs for my upcoming book being published by Chelsea Green Publishing this winter. Exactly 200 photographs, arranged by chapter and entered into a spreadsheet that gave their order, title and caption. This process has taken three days and was the culmination of the initial phase of writing the book. Tomorrow I transfer everything to a zip drive, print a hard copy of the text, and overnight mail all of it up to Vermont.
So I was feeling celebratory while driving up through the hill towns to get raw milk from the farm that was the reason my wife and I moved to the area, where I learned to farm vegetables and milk cows. I stopped at the local hardware store to buy chicken feed and twine to string up the pole beans. And on my way back down, I decided to swing by the Bullitt Reservation.
The Bullitt Reservation is where, for three years, I was the property steward for the Trustees of Reservations, a land conservation group in Massachusetts that owns and manages over a hundred properties ranging from tracts of forest to large mansions. The Bullitt Reservation is on the modest end, a refurbished farmhouse and barn surrounded by gardens that serves as a regional office. For three years, my job was to design and build the gardens, repair the barn, build trails and teach workshops.
I left that job to pursue spooncarving as a career, and that first year was hard. Not only was I not gaining any traction with the spoons, the young fella that was hired to take over my job absolutely BUTCHERED the gardens, cutting back stuff that should not be cut back and weeded out all the flower seedlings of self-sowing annuals that I had been carefully cultivating for the last three years. I was devastated, seeing all the careful spaces I had nurtured obliterated by someone's ignorance. I left and didn't go back until today.
Today I thought what the heck, I should visit the property because this was where it all started. Without that job, I wouldn't have gotten into scything, which means I wouldn't have gotten into spooncarving. I wouldn't have started teaching workshops, which means I wouldn't have started teaching one-on-one lessons. By leaving that job the way I did, I was pushed into using Instagram when I would otherwise have chosen not to, and it was through Instagram that I reached out to Chelsea Green and got the book deal. So this place, and leaving this place, brought me to where I am today.
So imagine my surprise when I pulled up the circular drive and noticed that the gardens looked GOOD. The lavender I planted and painstakingly bedded each winter was thriving on the south-facing retaining wall. The blueberry bushes were getting big, the grape arbor I built was actually started to being covered with grapes I started as slips shoved in the ground, the flower beds were crowded with salvia, poppies, clovers, daisies. The strawberries under the hydrangeas I planted along the walkway were still there and the hydrangeas were actually getting big. The willow entrance to the garden towered over the path, and the peonies I planted had so many blooms they were tied up to stakes.
On every side were plants that I HAD PLANTED. It was the space I had envisioned, slightly stripped down, but more complex by virtue of its very maturity. The woodchips on the paths were fresh. The lupines were blooming in the wildflower meadow. The orchard I had planted had mostly survived. The lily of the valley had spread.
I was overwhelmed with this sense of joy and surprise and gratitude, that this thing I had started was not only still here, but had come into its own in the ensuing three years since I left. And I was reminded that life is like that: where we are right now is the result of everything that has come before. We may think we are never, ever, EVER going to see the garden we dream of, or the skill we aspire to, or the success we pursue, but then we turn around and realize it has happened. Not through willing it to be so. Rather, time has done the work. We began something, and stick with it, even neglect it at times, but nudge it forward just enough, and time does the rest.
Guys, the garden is beautiful. There were tears in my eyes driving home, so I turned up the Brandi Carlisle and belted along.
This weekend I attended Greenwoodfest, the wonderful spooncarving festival put on by PlymouthCRAFT each year in eastern Massachusetts. I'm assuming you all know what this event is, at least in theory, and I don't need to explain it more. Let's move on.
I was nervous, attending. I've had mixed interactions with a bunch of people I knew would be there, and I was not sure how it would go, if meeting in person would help or hurt. I've been going back and forth in my head about how frank to be about all this here, if I should just do a generic "what a lovely event" type post and leave it at that. But the truth is more complicated, and it doesn't seem to me to be helpful to shy away from hard conversations. So here goes.
We (me and Matt White and Dwight Beebe were driving together) arrived late, and showed up as dinner was wrapping up in the dining hall. There is nothing like showing up after everyone has already bonded and not knowing what the deal is to make me feel like a kid just starting school again, but then Jane Mickleborough walked up to me and gave me a big hug and said it was so nice to meet me, and I was drawn into her table and out of my head. Thank you, Jane, for doing that.
I was on the dish crew, and so I had to wolf down some food and dive right into the madness of hundreds of dishes, loading trays and running them through the Hobart, and amazing industrial dishwasher that is a delight of modern engineering. After most of the dishes had been washed, Anne the head dishwasher told me that I could go, that she was being paid to wrap things up, but honestly I was nervous to go out and mingle with all these people who I have had mixed relations with.
I'm skirting around this, I know, and my hands are trembling in anticipation of saying all this, but here goes. I rub a number of the professional people in the spooncarving world the wrong way. I think it is a combination of coming off a bit strong, sharing my opinions a bit too freely, and acting on ideas in a way that seems premature or like who am I to be doing it.
Part of the mismatch here is cultural. The side of my family I see most often is the loud, brash New York Jewish side, the side that doesn't hesitate to expound opinions and disagree with things. I am increasingly aware that the professionals in spooncarving scene are most often from more reserved cultures.
The other part is timing. Because I didn't come to Greenwoodfest last year or the year before, I am making these face to face connections from an awkward place of having already started to walk a professional path, selling and teaching and communicating about my ideas. So there is definitely the sense I think of who am I to come in with so many opinions. Had I met some of these people earlier on when I wasn't so far along, it would have been easier to build relationships. As it is, I offered to show a lovely woman how I axe out spoon blanks, and more and more people stood around watching, and it felt like an impromptu class, which I think was great for the people watching but felt awkward with the professionals. That is just one of several examples.
This all feels scary to write about because we don't often share these sides of ourselves online, the parts where we feel like failures. It is easier to say that the event was amazing and inspiring and leave it at that. It is harder to come away wishing I had somehow done something differently, made a better impression. On the other hand, I honestly don't know what I might have done differently. I don't think I overstepped any boundaries by my own standards. I shared what I know and what I am up to when asked. But it I did get the sense that this was too much for some.
By far the most rewarding part of the experience was meeting all the amazing people who came to the festival from all walks of life. There were scientists, technologists, people with careers in woodworking and management, people who shrugged off their professional life as uninteresting but who were genuinely fascinating and lovely. Sitting down at a new table of people with every meal and asking people about themselves was just like those first days in college, before the groups and cliques formed, when you could introduce yourself to everyone and anyone and be open to it all. So I didn't make some of the connections I was hoping to make, but I did make connections, and that was amazing and worth coming back for.
Good grief, I'm still trembling writing this. I struggle with this side of myself, because it's a double edged sword. I know that my opinionatedness and brashness with just doing stuff bothers many people who maybe feel like it's not my place to put myself out there, like I haven't earned it or something. But I also know that it is these very same qualities that have gotten me to where I am today, where I have the privilege to make my living doing what I love and helping others explore this same path. So I guess I want to say two things. To the four or five people who I've upset (and who honestly probably will never read this), please accept my apology and know that I am working on these same qualities in myself to be better. I do take it seriously. And to all of the other people who were there this weekend, it was so lovely meeting you and learning your story. I hope we meet again next year.
Farming didn't use to be the cool thing it is today. in 2001, when my wife put off going to college to pursue farming up on the coast of Maine, her parent's peers said oh what a shame, what a waste of a wonderful intellect. Farming was not cool.
Then Barbara Kingsolver wrote Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, and Michael Pollan wrote the Omnivore's Dilemma, and overnight, it seemed, farming was very cool. The farm we worked on together shortly after moving back to Massachusetts was actually in Barbara Kingsolver's book, which had just come out, and we found ourselves on the edge of a sea-change in American culture. That first summer at the farmer's market, someone came up to us and said "You farmer's are like the new rock stars!" No joke. A lot had changed in six years.
Nowadays, farming is considered a legitimately awesome way of contributing to a better future. It is considered hard, noble work. It probably helps if you have tattoos. It helps if you have a cute baby (although believe me, it doesn't). Or at least a photogenic dog.
I have a dream for spooncarving, or greenwoodworking, or sloyd, or whatever you want to call it. I have a dream that it will undergo the same sea change in perception. When I started carving, it was weird. People couldn't imagine that there was a market for this, in the same way that people couldn't understand that there might be a market for winter greens cut fresh from a greenhouse.
In the last four years, there has started to be a growing acceptance of spooncarving as a normal activity, something like knitting, a hobby, a diversion, a way to connect with your hands.
I'm speaking of something deeper.
I have a dream that one day, sloyd will be a deeply understood and respected way of understanding our humanity. People will learn how to carve in the way that they learn how to drive a car, as just a normal part of growing up. Everyone will have a basic understanding of how it works, much as we have a basic understanding of gardening, even if we don't do it.
I have a dream that spooncarving will become cool to everyone, not just those that are practicing it. People will find out what I do and say that's amazing, instead of giving me puzzled looks or laughing. People will dream of growing up to be a spooncarver.
I have a dream that greenwoodworking will become inextricably tied with the idea of forest stewardship, that people will understand that caring for a landscape and resource comes from using it, interacting with it. Spooncarvers and greenwoodworkers will unite to promote the health and continuance of forests around the world, and tie the importance of their work to the quality of the very air we breathe and the web of ecosystems that support all life on earth.
None of this will make spooncarving particularly lucrative, or easier to make a living at. It is still tough to be a farmer. That hasn't changed.
But a change is coming. I can feel it. I can see it in the varied faces of all the people who come for lessons. Old, young, men, women, rich and poor: I have taught them all. I can see it in the identities of the people who buy blanks from me. People of all ethnicities, living in all different types of communities, in inner cities, suburbs and rural areas; people of all backgrounds and temperaments. They are finding in spooncarving something that has been mostly lost in our modern culture: a connection to the most humble, everyday objects of our lives. They are learning to use their hands. They are learning to value and understand trees. They are learning the satisfaction of making something, from start to finish, themselves.
I have a dream that spooncarvers will be the new rock stars. Each of us, in our own local communities, valued for what we represent about humanity. Something ancient. Something hopeful.
I just read an excellent free ebook about using Instagram written by @localmilk, one of those livestyle feeds that has a huge following and that I'm usually skeptical about. Nevertheless, the ebook WAS free, so I read it. And would you know it, it made me do a lot of thinking about how I am using Instagram, and how I can use it better.
First, let me say that I feel like I am doing many things right. I have become a decent photographer with my Android phone, I have a mix of content, I use all the features, and I am thoughtful about my captions and hashtag use.
That said, there are definitely things I could improve, if I step back and remember that the point of Instagram, for me, is largely sharing what I do in a way that is empowering and engendering community. My use of Instagram is a mix of personal (the stuff I want to remember when I look back at my feed in a year or two) and outward facing (the stuff I share that brings value to you and gives you a sense of what I do and what's going on). These two are in constant tension. Too much personal and I would rightly expect many viewers to jump ship, reducing my reach. Too much outward facing and I lose the thing that is most valuable to me in the future, those priceless moments that I wouldn't capture otherwise.
I think I most often err on the side of sharing too much. This is both in terms of too personal (although we do have boundaries around what and how much I share of our kids and family in general), and also in terms of volume.
One thing I hadn't thought of before that the book brought up was that a long, thoughtful caption need not flow directly from the image. In other words, the image gets them through the door, and then you can say whatever you want. You don't need to photograph something to talk about it, and you don't need to talk about something you photograph. This has been my sticking point for stories, in that I sometimes feel like I want the story to be a post because I have something to say.
Ultimately, I need to have some sort of discipline to when I post pictures, because I often post as I go throughout the day, capturing and sharing the best I have at hand because I don't know what the rest of the day will bring. Sometimes a lot, sometimes almost nothing, image-wise. While posting in the moment feels intuitive to me, like I'm sharing in real time, the truth is it hardly matters. What matters more is whether I am being as thoughtful and helpful as I can be with my post. Often the answer is no, I'm just sharing to keep up the discipline of it.
Especially as I start carving more, posting images of every single spoon I carve has gotten to be too much. It used to be a good fit to do that, but now I will carve three, four, five, six spoons in a day, and so it is time to be more thoughtful about things. With the advent of Spoonesaurus Magazine and my book coming out in the six months or so, things will only get more full. So it is appropriate to step back and evaluate if I could have more impact by doing less, but better.
Now, I balk at the idea of doing things just to gain more followers. That feels very Machievellian and I don't believe that numbers compare from one person to the next. But I do see growth in the number of followers as proof that I am doing a good job, in the sense of putting my best foot forward and making the most of the opportunities I have created. And while I don't believe in growth for growth's sake, I do think I have something valuable to share, and I have a fire in my belly to pursue this path as a means of supporting my family. There will never be an end to this path so long as I am alive, in that I will always be doing the next thing, promoting the next move. The question is always, where do I go from here?
So here are some changes you can expect from me going forward with Instagram: I plan to post less, maybe two posts a day, and to use stories more. I plan to continue doing live streams, but maybe promoting them better in advance, and I hope to have a a time of day, probably late afternoon, when I review pictures taken during the day and make a thoughtful decision about what image would be best suited to the grid at that time. Posts will provide the broad context, while stories will continue to give you an immediacy to my day and work.
Please know that I worry that this will feel alienating to some of you. Maybe it won't, and I'm worrying about nothing. But I value the relationships I have built with each of you and don't want to lose the connections that posts seem to form better than stories. Hopefully, I can find a new normal where I am able to be strategic but still approachable. As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Not even sure where to start after a title like that. Yes. No. Let me back up.
I started off carving with the worst possible tools. I struggled along for a year or so until I finally felt it was worth it to cough up the $25 for a Mora 106 and a bit more for one of Robin's early open sweep hook knives. I used a tag sale hatchet. The I stumbled along with these for a couple more years, seeing the much more expensive tools made by blacksmiths and old Swedish companies and felt like I would never find myself needing them.
I prided myself on doing the most possible with the tools at hand. At really owning them, knowing just how to get them to do what I wanted. I became good at that.
Then one by one, really top end tools started finding me, at first through the generosity of others (thank you Matt, thank you Brian!), and more recently because I have deliberately sought them out. As I have become proficient with these new tools, my carving has grown much better.
Leaving me to wonder, what is going on here?
Am I becoming a better carver, or am I just getting better tools? Now spoiler alert, the answer is that of course I cannot tease the two strands apart and claim that it is one or the other factor. It is clearly both. I am becoming better, and so I make better use of the better tools, and the better tools also allow me to achieve surfaces and control that I hadn't been able to before. But would I have felt the same way when I was less experienced?
If I was just starting out, is it really the right move to buy top end stuff right away? Will that accelerate the process of gaining the skills and confidence that lead to good carving?
Boy is this a tough one. I really don't know. I like the idea (probably because it's what I did) that you just start with whatever you've got and muddle along. But I recognize that I might very well have not continued carving at any number of junctures along that road. I might have thrown up my hands and thought it was never going to get easier. I almost did. Life goes in twisty ways, and I could have ended up somewhere totally different.
So I guess the result I'm coming to (and I really am just thinking this out now, as I write), is that the best tools might not make you a better carver immediately, but they might make you more likely to stick with spooncarving. Because that same mastery that I gained with my tag sale hatchet I might have been gaining with my Gransfors Bruks if I'd not scoffed at the very idea of pouring that much money into this budding business. Who knows where I might be today with that extra time on the better blade? We can't know where we might have ended up, but we can look back and see what almost stopped us from continuing.
For me, that was not knowing how to sharpen. It was not having a hook knife of any sort. It was not taking a lesson, and not actively pursuing deliberate learning. It was thinking I knew more than I did, when you really put things in perspective.
So yes. You can totally muddle along with whatever you have at hand. I certainly did, as did most other professional carvers. It takes rare forethought and deliberate action to make a plan, spend some money, and enact the plan. Want to be a better spooncarver in four months? Spend $400 on tools, another $100 on education, and then practice.
You could do the same without spending money, but it would probably take you a year to be in the same spot. Which is fine.
When I was younger I routinely traded my time as a tradeoff of not spending money. Just be clear eyed about it.
It is easy for me, and everyone I suspect, to focus too much on the immediate cost and not on the long-term vision. Or to focus too much on the tool and think that just owning it will make you better. It will, to a point. But so will education. And so will practice. And so think of tools as just one of many ways that you can nudge yourself forward. Inseparable from the rest of it. Mysterious as anything whether it's you or the tool or the combination of the two.
Wherever you are, that's the place to start. Where you go is up to you. Whether you have money or not. Whether you have a local option for learning or not. Whether you have the time to practice a lot or not. Piece together your own path forward.
I hope our paths meet.
This is a blog post with substance. So prepare yourself.
I wanted to share how I structure my spooncarving lessons and classes and why, in an effort to make as many of these ideas as possible public knowledge. If you teach spooncarving yourself, I would love to hear how you do things. If you respond on Instagram, I will likely reply, whereas if you respond here, I will read it and appreciate it but replying is more difficult and usually doesn't happen. My apologies in advance.
Spooncarving can be dangerous. There are a number of ways you can hurt yourself, ranging from minor stuff to life-changing calamities. For this reason, in general, I prefer to teach one-on-one or at most two or three. Workshops with more people need to be handled differently, and the likelihood that someone will do something stupid when your back is turned is higher, so beware.
I generally focus on four topics, in this order: spoon design, sharpening, axe techniques and knife skills. I like to start with design because that gets people handling lots of spoons and thinking critically about nuances of design. If possible, I have people try out my spoons with yogurt, so they can see the enormous difference in feel that tiny differences in form can make.
Sharpening comes next, because that is everyone's weak spot, almost without fail. It also allows novices to get their hands on a blade and begin to have a relationship with a knife. I keep a couple of beater knives around rather than try to have them sharpen knives to finish quality. Sometimes this happens, but sometimes it doesn't get that far, so keeping a separate set of knives that are already sharp helps. I cover sharpening by discussing edge geometry, bevel geometry, how to use sandpaper to sharpen, how to feel if the edge is actually engaged properly and the muscle memory that builds up when you do it correctly. We briefly talk about re-flattening bevels, and sharpening hook knives and axes.
We then go outside to the stump and begin the process of carving two spoons. By carving two, I can keep them moving forward, demonstrating on one spoon while the student practices on the second, and thus avoid leaving them spoonless. I keep pushing the process forward on both spoons, and at the end the student goes home having seen the entire process and with two good examples for reference.
The goal with this is to teach safe habits rather than nuances of design and execution, although it is always fun when I have a more advanced student and we can relax and geek out about how to do this or that. My general goal is to have people go home feeling empowered to continue, backed up by safe habits so they don't hurt themselves.
So axe skills emphasizes keeping your fingers safe, splitting with the club, gentle and accurate cuts, and a slow pace. My method of axing blanks is the same for all shapes of spoons, so we always start of axing in the reference face with the crank, drawing a shape and then refining from there. The student takes turns with myself walking through the process, with me stepping in to show just how far you can take things. And I watch them like a hawk, making sure their fingers are safe, their body is turned to the side, they have a healthy fear of the axe and that they are thinking about what happens if something doesn't go as expected. Axing is where things can go really wrong really fast, but thankfully I have not had an accident yet.
Then we take the blanks inside and start carving. Again, the emphasis is on the two or three basic cuts (thumb push, chest pull, and possibly pivots) and how to execute them safely. Over the year and a half I have been teaching, I have had to explain the thumb push in many different ways to find a way that a particular student can understand. The best I have come up with is this: the hand holding the knife adjusts the angle of the blade but provides no power. The thumb of the other hand, placed on the back of the knife blade, pins the knife in place while the fingers of that same hand move the spoon across the blade edge. So the knife is staying still (unless it transitions to a pivot for extra length) and the wood is pulling or rotating against the edge, not the other way around. That really helped someone see it recently.
So we go through the spoon, cut by cut, talking about why and how to handle certain situations. I watch them carefully, and don't hesitate to stop them and show them a safer way if I see them forgetting. The most common mistake is to hold a spoon down at your chest and do a chest pull down toward that hand, or to do a chest pull correctly except with the elbow out, meaning you could stab yourself.
By the time we get to hollowing the bowl (which I do last), the knife familiarity is generally pretty good. I always clean up the cuts the student makes at every stage (unless the person is a confident carver) so they go home with an example of what is possible, not what they can do. They will have lots of examples of that, plenty. The hook knife cuts I teach NEVER have the blade going up and over the thumb, but rather have the edge stop short of the thumb when the handle chokes up in the palm of the hand. I also rely on lots of pivots for hollowing. As before, I always clean up the work of new carvers so they can see what it looks like to really take it the right distance. If time is running out, I sometimes shift to straight up demonstration carving, swiftly carving the remainder of the spoon so they can see the whole process and we can talk about it. I would rather that than give them another twenty minutes of muddling along. They can muddle along when they aren't paying for it.
For larger classes, I cover these same topics, but there are some additional things to watch out for. I always try to start by asking about people, where they are at, why they are here and what they hope to get out of the class (this goes for individual lessons as well). I like to start with a demonstration of carving a quick spoon so they can see every step of the process, because different people advance at different rates and that way I get the basics of safety and strategy for not getting stuck in a hole out to everyone, right away. This demonstration is combined with a treatise on spoon design, as illuminated by the process that dictates elements of the design.
We then shift to sharpening, for all of the reasons above. I never want to leave sharpening for last, because I think it is the topic most shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding and is at the same time the most crucial for success. So we dive right at it. Classes are always longer affairs, so we might devote half a day of a two day class to sharpening.
So an hour demo, then two or three hours of sharpening, then people start axing. I prefer short stumps for classes, because people are safer when sitting down. They are less likely to overdo it with too much force, and less likely to hit their legs. When people are axing I walk around and around, correcting and adjusting. I'm always looking over my shoulder. I have found that it is not the people you expect who hurt themselves.
Someone is always first to shift to the knife, so as that shift occurs I keep a knife in my pocket so I can take the spoon from someone and get them back on track with a demonstration or correction. This is where the earlier demonstration is really important, because having that under our belts means that people can advance at their own pace without waiting up for others so I can explain the next step.
As the time gets to a close, I try to adjust how much carving I am doing on people's spoons to that they are keeping pace with the remaining time. They should have at least an hour or two to work on the bowl. As the spoon gets close to finished, my carving becomes trickier as I rescue the spoon from failure again and again and keep them on track to finishing. This can be very intense for me, but the trick is to keep it calm, and funny and self-deprecating.
I always keep a first aid kit of my own on hand. I have found that I need large bandaids, gauze pads, medical tape and antibiotic ointment. While I don't have injuries with each lesson or class, there have been several times that I was very glad it was right at hand.
That's it! I like to end classes (and sometimes lessons) by asking the students what I can do differently the next time to improve the experience. I have learned a lot that way.
Many ideas for the next blog post have come and gone, piling up in my pocket notebook like shouts heard dimly across a room. I will probably never explore them, because the thing I have been focused on lately has been growth.
I realized the other week that the time had come to start scheduling more carving into each day. I started out the year with a goal of making $35-50 a day of spoons and blanks, and lately I seem to be hitting somewhere between that and $75, depending. I now have a two month long waiting list, and I anticipate closing this year's books sometime in August, to give me time to fulfill all my commitments before pivoting to the Christmas tree farm.
I've been thinking a lot about how to grow my business, and the most obvious place to start was to push myself to make more each day. So I bought a new monthly planner and rewrote the two months of work, booking at least $100 a day, with a lighter day on Mondays when I go help my grandmother for a few hours. This has really started to squeeze the rest of my obligations, taking care of the house, the dogs, the editing I do and generally keeping things running on an even keel.
I don't want to put myself in a position of imbalance, but the reason I pushed to do this was because I realized that no one was going to do it for me. If more and more work comes in, but I just schedule it out in the future more, then I'm not actually making more, right? I just have more work lined up.
The way to earn more money is to do more with each day. That can be by charging more for my work (which I do increase prices every October), or it can be by demanding more of myself.
That's the thing about being my own boss. No one is going to make me do it but me. And no one is going to figure out that truth that I won't actually make more until I do more, but me. So this is the next step. Push through the summer seeing if I can do a solid seven hours of carving each day and still meet all my other commitments. And see if I am happy.
I seem to have plateaued in the time it takes me to make spoons, because even though I get more efficient, I also tend to expect a higher standard from myself. So the next step is to figure out where the other avenues of growth lie, beyond increasing my time and increasing my prices. We shall see what I do.
One thing is for sure. No one is going to make me do it but me.
So the other day I rediscovered Hanson. You know, Hanson, the three brothers whose song MmmBop was the biggest song of 1997. Flash in the pan, right? One hit wonder, right?
I had been aware that Hanson had grown up and was still making music in college because Taylor Hanson (the middle one) bears a striking resemblance to my freshman college roommate and best friend. But that was back in 2002. I honestly hadn't given it another thought.
Until the other day, when I listened to a podcast that told their story after their searing moment of fame, and I found out just what had happened. It wasn't drugs and a dramatic breakup and their lives falling apart and no longer making music. Oh no.
Turns out, they started their own independent label after their second and third albums failed to get the support of their former producers, who stopped promoting them six weeks after release. They are still making music, together, they are married and have kids, they still tour and play sold out concerts to screaming fans.
And their music is better than it was. That to me is the crazy thing, that we are all ignoring, that these brothers, who somehow bucked the tide of fame and fortune to retain their humility and genuineness, are better songwriters now than they were back at the tender ages of 16, 13 and 11.
Why am I writing about Hanson?
Because I find their story inspiring. They found a way to play by their own rules, with total control, and to keep doing what they loved doing without needing anyone's permission. They are an example of what talent pushed forward over twenty years looks like.
I have written maybe a year ago about how our culture values flash in the pan genius, but has less reverence for mastery earned over time. Hanson's story covers both, with the early contribution that for many would have been the end of the line, the best they did. But what I love so much about them, and what I find inspiring, is that they put their head down and just kept going, year after year, in a smart, businesslike way, and now they have a body of songs that eclipses that one hit wonder they started with. They have mastered their instruments, and they have a deep and technical sense of songwriting. Without losing sight of what is catchy and hooky and fun, they have a calm assurance now that their early work just could never have.
These are all things I want in my life. I want to make that is catchy and hooky and fun, and also calm and masterful. Thankfully, I know what I need to do to get there. As Zac, the youngest brother said in an interview I watched on YouTube (I have been very deep down this rabbithole), the secret, such as it is, is to "do what you love. And then do it a lot."
p.s. If this podcast has enticed you to listen to any Hanson at all, I would recommend Get the Girl Back, I've Been Thinkin Bout Something, and I Was Born. Happy listening!
I just got back from teaching my first workshop with more than four people, and it went great! At the beginning of the workshop I did what I always do in such circumstances, which was to go around the room and have everyone introduce themselves and say what they hope to get out of the experience. Not surprisingly, everyone said they hoped to get a wooden spoon out of the process.
We then went and spent the first day doing everything but carving spoons.
We talked about safety, we talked about wood and where to get it and how to store it. We talked about design and sharpening, and we practiced a lot of sharpening. We carved wooden spreaders.
The day passed without carving a single spoon. The next morning, I started off by demonstrating carving a wooden spoon, start to finish. This took me forty minutes, as I explained everything single thing as I went along, all the things I did and just as important, all the things I didn't do.
By the end of it, everyone was sure they would never finish a spoon on time. They couldn't remember the opening moves. They wished that I had let them start their spoon right at the very beginning on the first day, so that they could at least try to get it done.
Here's why I didn't do that:
When someone comes to my class, I want them to leave with safe habits, an ability to sharpen any of their tools to a professional level, and an ability to read the wood and adapt what they are doing so they don't ruin what they've already done and can avoid pitfalls. So we start with those basics. If I only had half an hour with someone to teach them to carve a spoon, I'd still start with these.
So with just four hours to go in the thirteen hours of instruction, we finally started everyone's spoons. By this point, everyone had gotten some axing and sloyd knife work in carving spreaders the day before, so I could trust them to have fairly safe habits. I spent that last four hours walking around and around in a circle, doing a kind of carving I had never done before. For lack of a better term (and I don't mean to downplay the tremendous progress everyone made) I call it rescue carving. With each person, I took where they were and nudged their spoon along to the next level, demonstrating just how far they could take the axework or how to do the next step. Each spoon started out fairly similar but quickly diverged and became more and more unique as people's struggles pushed the designs in different directions. Some ended up thick and strong, other thin to the point of (almost) failure. With each person, I rescued their situation and got them headed in the right track again. Two minutes later, I moved on and did it again. And again. Seven people, so seven spoons were rescued in that last four hours. This was carving unlike any I have ever done before. I doubt I could have done this even six months ago, not with 100% success. If carving for yourself is skiing down slopes and challenging yourself, rescue carving is like being on ski patrol and rescuing someone on the mountain in terrible conditions. There is nothing else like it. Each shift to the next person was a new challenge, a new set of circumstances.
Why not let everyone just do what they could do, go home with a lumpy spoon that they could proudly say they had made entirely by themselves? Well, I figure if that is an experience they want, then nothing is stopping them. They can go and do that at home. But they are here because I am a resource. By rescuing their situation and pushing their spoon along faster than they would have themselves, I show them at every step what is possible, not on some other spoon, but on their own.
I am very upfront that this is what I am going to do. I tell everyone at the very beginning. I want people to go home with a spoon that inspires them to keep carving, to know what is possible if they stick with it, and that also is a nice spoon to use for years to come. By allocating the class time to base skills, I make sure they are capable of successfully pursuing carving on their own.
And me? I get to practice a rare form of carving that few will ever experience, one that pushes my skill right to the limit, in speed, adaptability, accuracy and finesse. After that, carving a little old spoon that I started and finished all by myself feels positively tame.
There's something I've noticed in a lot of people who are excited by what I do and dream of doing something similar, and that is that they recognize and understand the steps they need to take to get there, they just have lots of reasons why they aren't doing it. They don't have the personality they say, or their life isn't interesting enough, or they're not good at following through, or they are too perfectionist, or their house isn't photogenic, or they have too many other responsibilities, or it's being done already by someone else.
I used to think these were just excuses, but I've realized recently that it is actually something else. Because I think these all stem from this one thing, which is permission.
We live in a culture where you get discovered by someone, or you pay lots of money for a degree that says you can now do certain things. We receive permission from the system to do what we dream of doing. We are trained to seek out these different forms of permission, and sometimes they are quite subtle. Your partner giving you the green light to pursue something may or may not happen as an actual conversation. The role models you see. What you assume you are good at.
People don't pursue what they want to pursue because they think, on some level, that someone needs to give them permission to just go for it.
If that sounds like you, let me be that person for you now.
GO FOR IT.
The truth is that NO ONE needs to give you permission except yourself. Now, there might be hoops you need to jump through, depending on your field. If you need to get licensed, get licensed. If you need to get insurance, get insurance. If you need to build your skills to a certain level before offering the world what you know, well then do that. But don't ever let someone else determine when you are ready to start doing or being what you want to do or be. The phone in your hand that you are probably reading this on is the great leveler. You can create or share WHATEVER you want to, with no middle man restricting your access.
Not true, you say? Instagram choking off your organic reach? Start a podcast. Get a twitter feed, join bloody Vero, for crying out loud. DO something about it. You don't get to control the framework you are playing in, but that's just one framework. Own them all. Get yourself a bloody website and start a BLOG!
Point is, there will be many who started before you or who are ahead of you now who will make you think you aren't ready. Will make you think you need to learn from them in order to have permission to start doing what they are doing. Even when that is NOT their intent, that's just the truth. We do it to ourselves, we think that unless we pay money, we won't be ready.
There is nothing wrong with spending money to learn stuff. It is an excellent investment, and depending on how good a fit it is between yourself and the teacher, you can end up in a whole different spot than you were. The point is that you should never feel like you need to take a lesson in order to be able to start doing something. Just do it. Be excellent at what you do, always strive to be better, and be a good human being. Nobody needs to approve that.
Similarly, don't let other people's business choices influence your own. Do what makes sense for you. Want to charge more money or less? Do it. Want to start selling but know your work isn't as good as others? Do it anyway. Want to start teaching but not sure what you are doing? Think it through, figure it out, buy some insurance and then just do it.
In the grand scheme of things, you only get one life. Don't spend one minute more giving anyone but yourself the power to weigh in on what you can and cannot do. Be honest and forthright about your journey and where you are at, and pay attention to relationships and not things, and everything will work out.
You have all the permission you need. Now go.
My blog has evolved into a series of short essays on the nature of entrepreneurship, craftsmanship, and their overlap. If either of these topics is something you think about, you will probably like this.