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.
Well, this weekend's Spoonesaurus Gathering went off without a hitch at Matt's house in New Hampshire, unless you count the fact that I decided to sleep in my truck bed through an 8 degree night and was very, very cold. And there were 30 people! When Matt and I decided to do it, we thought there might be a dozen people. But nope, 30. About half I had met before, whether because they had come for a lesson, or a visit, or I had visited them. But there was something special about all flocking together. We were goofy. We were nerdy. We were generous and we were happy to be together.
It is late and I badly need to go sleep in my warm bed. But remember this, team. We are better together. Come together when you can. Much love to you all.
This post is intended to be a follow-up to the last post, Competition, so if you haven't read that, do so.
The idea that we can compete with one another in a healthy, respectful way is something I'm passionate about. Which is ironic, because I'm actually one of the least competitive persons I know. I have just about zero interest in sports or games where someone wins and someone loses. It seems like a big waste of time to me. When I watch the Olympics, I'm more interested in the skier who finished last than in assigning much emotional weight to who came in first.
This disinterest in competition for its own sake is directly tied to my belief in the power of collaboration. Working with someone else to create something better than what you could have on your own is a magical process, and is possible for every single one of us.
My own most important collaboration in the spooncarving world has been with my friend Matt White of Temple Mountain Woodcraft. A year ago, Matt got in touch to ask if I would trade him a couple of spoons for one of his Mora blades that he was handling, and I agreed. A funny thing happened as a direct result of Matt establishing this human connection: I gave him some feedback on his knife handle that made his work much better, and he gave me feedback on my spoons that made my work better too. Meanwhile, Matt became a really good spooncarver, partly from hanging around with me, and I became a good spooncarver, in large part because of the leap I was able to make using Matt's knives.
By sharing the other person's weaknesses with each other, we were each able to improve, and then share these improved skills and abilities with one another. It's a long term relationship. By now, I find myself in the incredibly privileged position of being the royal food taster for each of Matt's newest creations,, as he has gone on to become a really good knife smith. Matt, on the other hand, gets all the feedback of what I do with these knives as I put them through their paces in a way that he wouldn't have the time for.
Our collaboration runs deeper: six months ago we decided to start a project we called Spoonesaurus, which was originally going to be a very specific Instagram thing but has since morphed into an umbrella that basically covers whatever we happen to do together. We are holding our first Spoonesaurus Gathering in one week at Matt's house, where we hope to hang out and carve a lot of spoons with people from all over. Our Spoonesaurus account on Instagram now has a thousand followers and 60 short videos, each one breaking down in nerdy detail some aspect of spooncarving. We try to do one or two news ones a week. We will be starting a Spoonesaurus Magazine this summer, to provide even more resources and community to people who share our passion.
Would I be doing any of these things on my own?
There is something about collaboration that gives you permission to dream big. When it's just you, it is easy to stop yourself and think "who am I to put this out there?". When it's you and someone else, you prop each other up. You don't want to let the other person down. You create positive feedback loops.
Six months ago, both Matt and myself were trying to get traction with our knifemaking (or handle making for Matt at the time) and spooncarving (in my case). Now, these are what we do, full time or close enough. I directly attribute this change to our collaboration.
Collaboration goes further than that, even. It gives you a teammate. When I'm not sure what to do about something, I run it by Matt, and vice versa. When I'm desperately in need of a vent or need a sounding board to make sure I'm not crazy, I talk to Matt.
So while I'm all in favor of healthy competition, I would say that collaboration wins every time. If you are feeling like the competition is too much, reach out and see if you can collaborate instead. You might be surprised at where you are in six months.
Every now and then I get approached by someone wanting to sell something similar to what I sell. It happened just yesterday, a young carver like myself in Portland who wanted to start selling spoon blanks and was trying hard not to step on my toes. I told him what I tell everyone who is worried about being in competition with me.
I hope you do it, I said. I hope it works. I hope you sell lots. Please don't hesitate to compete with me.
In the craft world, there seems to be an unwillingness to think in these terms. Competition is a dirty word, and territories are staked out with the explicit idea that if someone is doing something like you, one of you must be a copier and a cheat. The idea that competition might be appropriate and healthy, that we should each feel free to pursue our goals so long as we act forthrightly and honestly, is rarely put forward. Instead, there is often the idea that you should pay your dues, that certain forms are already taken, and that there is only so much room.
I think this is a load of bunk.
I think the pie of people interested in buying wooden spoons and in learning to carve only gets bigger as long as we don't poison the well by pissing all over it. I think our WORK gets better from having to step up our game in the face of others pushing themselves to be the best they can be. I think it doesn't matter if you weren't first, or if you aren't the most vocal or don't have the clout. I think we all get to compete. As one spooncarver put it to me, ideas belong to whoever wants them the most. That means putting your effort where your mouth is.
One way to compete is to determine what your unfair advantage is. We all have an angle. Mine is that a tornado took down a ton of trees around me last year, so I have a never ending supply of wood. Yours might be that you live in the middle of a city with millions of people around you. Or maybe it's that you are young and childless and can pursue your passion with a singlemindedness that I will never again be able to bring to bear now that I'm a father. Your unfair advantage MIGHT be that you were first. Or it might be you are just really really good.
Whatever it is, use it. Compete. Not in a back stabbing, poisonous kind of way, but in a healthy way where you run your own race, not being spooked by others trying out what you are doing and also not shying away from ideas you see others pursuing.
Run your own race.
Be the best that you can be. Be better than everyone else in your own way. Figure out what you want out of what you do and then go and make it happen. And certainly don't let someone else's fear of being outcompeted stand in the way of you trying.
I expect all of you to do this to me.
And watch out, because I'm doing it right back.
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.