If there's one thing I've realized as I progress as a spooncarver, it's that I do many things differently than other spooncarvers. Not just differently, but in many cases actually the opposite of how most of the field does things. This used to bother me, perplex me, worry me, until I realized it's my secret weapon (not so secret now, though).
The reason that doing things the opposite is a secret weapon is because of two things. The first is that when it comes to process, doing things differently leads to new discoveries, new ways of doing things, gains in efficiency. I carve the crank into my spoon blanks first thing, and that means I can use smaller, weirder pieces of wood with a high rate of success, for reasons that are too nuanced to go into here. I use just one hook knife when many others use several, and gain efficiencies, skill and benefits from doing so. I vary my rim thickness instead of trying to keep it consistent, and this makes for better spoons and an easier carve.
I could go on. The point is, I evolve as a craftsman, making developments that continuously take me away from what the canon describes. But it is precisely BECAUSE it takes me away from this conventional wisdom that I find unexpected benefits.
The second reason doing the opposite is a secret weapon is because when it comes to building a business, it is what separates us from everyone else that defines us. What makes you different is what people remember about you.
So while much of the spooncarving scene gets pulled into making hewn bowls, or dishes on the lathe, or cuttingboards (depending on which subgenre you belong to), I stick with carving spoons. Just spoons. There aren't that many of us. You get really good at things when you stay focused.
So while many spooncarvers make and teach, I branch out into publishing a magazine and start a podcast. Who cares if these don't make me money yet? It's what you do that is different that defines you.
There was a day about a month ago when my apprentice Dano was over, and he kept asking me questions about why I did this and why I did that. It drove home to me just how much I do that is different or even the opposite of how most spooncarvers operate, on every level.
Now, there is plenty of room in the category of "opposite" to do something that is dumb, or ugly, or just plain dangerous. But there is also soooo much room for things that are exciting and efficient and smart and safer, too.
And the best way to find the opposite? Understand what people are doing and ask yourself how you would improve that.
Now go do that.
I've been going through a slow patch with the scientific editing this last couple of weeks. Usually one or two manuscripts come in each week or so, but for the last four weeks, nothing. Now this is not unique: I've had slow patches like this and times when the work was coming in way too thick for my liking in the nine years I've been doing this. But whenever I get a dry spell like this, I am always sooooooo grateful that it's not all that I do.
I'm also grateful that it's not work I want to do for the rest of my life, and if it slowly starts to peter out, that's fine with me. What I do need to do, however, is be mindful that that income needs to come from somewhere, and push myself to ramp up my other work to pick up the slack. This is the tricky bit, because we all get comfortable in our lives, and recognizing that you need to ramp up the hours you're spending doing something is much easier than actually making that shift.
Now next week three or four manuscripts could very easily come in: that's how it works, randomly, and so I might need to ramp back down the expectations for my other work. This randomness is a bit of a pain, in other words. But it's also just part of the deal. I have the same randomness with my Christmas tree farm, in that people show up or not, often for personal reasons that have nothing to do with me. New customers come and go, and there is an overall trajectory that you can see from a distance, but the particulars are pretty random.
One of the things I love about my model of taking orders for spoons and running a wait list is that it serves as an antidote to this randomness. It's the opposite: a list of work waiting to be done. I can speed it up or slow it down within reason, and it feels like money waiting to be made. That is a comforting backdrop to all that randomness in the rest of my income.
What's random about your own income? And what can you do to create a backstop for that?
It's February, a hard time of year for inspiration in work or photography. The blush of winter has worn off, but the truly cold weather has showed up, and we are still a month at least away from the possibility of warm fronts teasing us with spring. It's also a time for me with relatively few personal encounters. I don't tend to do much teaching in January or February because the weather can be bad and makes planning a bit of a headache, especially since my outdoor space is a hoophouse, so nice when it's sunny but cold when it's cloudy.
All of this sets the stage for a bit of an energy slump in these months, as we all just wait for spring to bring some excitement into our step. I'm not a skier, nor do I much enjoy hiking around in snowy woods. I'm a putterer, and putterers suffer in late winter.
What does help is having a solid wall of work lined up, something I've been lucky enough to have this year. Last year I had some, but each day I was asking myself to do only about half of what I'm doing this year. This year I am asking 7-8 hours each day of carving/axing/shipping etc. While this can feel a bit hectic at times, it also keeps me pushing forward, through the slump.
I don't suffer from Seasonal Affected Disorder, but I can totally see how it works. And I'm no psychologist, but I suspect my approach of keeping busy is a good one. I don't have to ask myself what I'm inspired to make each day: I merely need to ask what is next.
The one tricky thing with keeping busy is that there is a certain discipline still required to not let the work get out of balance. I need to make sure I'm still pushing ahead with all the pieces of my plan, not just the paid work, or I will regret it down the road, having let things slip that I intended to continue. Like this blog, for instance.
The best way I know to make sure that stuff happens is to do it first in the day. So the kids get on the bus, and I do the podcast. I do the blog. I do the other things that I am doing for the future me. Then I do the day's work.
Otherwise I'd just slump around and panic at the end of the day.
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.