I've been getting a lot of questions lately about how long I've been carving spoons. Something in the zeitgeist, perhaps, but a number of people have wanted to know. I started carving in earnest (discounting a handful done in college and just after) five years ago now, and then made a bigger shift three years ago when I left a seasonal job to devote more time to spooncarving.
There is really no importance to these numbers. There is no magic number of years you need to be carving to be good, and it's not even really meaningful to think about it in those terms. We are each on a journey of developing our skills, and that journey is at its own pace and never ends until we die or stop carving. You could make the argument that there are more resources available now to carvers just starting out, better content breaking down how to go about it, and that this could shorten the time it takes to go from wanting to do it but being frustrated to that delightful middle ground of enough skill to begin exploring ideas. But you could also argue convincingly that the resources don't matter as much as the tenacity to pursue it daily, something that has always been possible.
That for me was the big turning point, when I stopped thinking of it as something I did seasonally or occasionally, and started having the discipline to carve every day. And then carve for a larger and larger portion of each day. If you are focused on running your own race, then the more you practice, the faster you will progress. So my three years of serious carving might be the equivalent of ten for someone who just carves a couple of times a week, because I carve every day for hours.
We all know this. We expect it in anything we pursue as a profession, that a six month internship or a year of devoting ourselves to really learning a job will move us to a completely different place. It is no different with spooncarving. Give me six months and I can have you carving at a professional level. But you will need to be doing it every day.
The harder thing to wrap our heads around is how to balance our expectations when we CAN'T pursue something full time, when it must remain a part time practice. That is the reality most of us find ourselves in with most things. Then it becomes even more important to close your eyes to the trajectory of others and just keep your eyes on the path, one foot in front of the other, and trust that you will get where you want to go.
In either scenario, the most difficult thing is to be patient with ourselves. It takes time to develop a skill. Even when you are proceeding at full steam, there is always a deeper level to go, sometimes a level that no one you can see has gone to. But the level still exists, how can it not? And if you are progressing in fits and starts, the need for patience is greater still.
Patience is even more important when it comes to building a business. Three years ago I reached out to 50 stores that I thought should be carrying my spoons. I had too high an opinion of my work then. Only one was interested, and that fizzled out. Now, two and a half years after being in touch with some of these, I am at a place where it makes sense to reach out again. We will see if it is a better fit this time. Certainly my work is much better and my prices more competitive. If you had told me back then that it would take several years for my ability to match my ambition of having such wholesale accounts, I would have been totally discouraged. Thankfully I didn't have a mentor to tell me that, and I found a way to pivot and adjust my prices to find demand and work my way back to this place. But it was not a sure thing and if I had gotten impatient with the outcome, I would probably have given up.
Everything you want in life will take more time than you think. And it will usually cost you more, in money or effort. That's just truth. The older I get, the more realistic I am about this, and I think it sets me up for more success because I realize that I need multiple irons in the fire, each heating at its own pace. Some will come to fruition in a years, some in five. When one is in full blossom I need to start up another one, because it all takes time. That's just it. Time.
Usually the days pass one by one and we don't really take note, just go on autopilot or react to whatever crisis demands our attention. To wrest back control of our time we need a plan, a long-term strategy of where we want to be and how we're going to get there. And then we just enact, and iterate, day after day after day. Small gains over time look like big gains overnight in the end. But don't let it fool you. That iceberg is mighty big below the surface of the water.
So recently I've been having conversations with a new friend and fellow spooncarver who wants to take the steps to find themselves in a few years in the spot where I am now, fully self-employed and in control of my financial outcome and growth. He has done a lot of things in life, and just had a kid, and is realizing that hustling for himself will probably have a greater likelihood of him finding himself in a position where he can support his family and live a satisfied, fulfilling life. We had a long conversation last week where I spilled my guts about how things went for me up until now, what I thought was important and things he should prepare himself for. Most of these points and topics are also in my upcoming book that's coming out from Chelsea Green Publishing this spring (I'd give you the title of the book but we haven't figured that out yet despite the book being written by now!). So if you like thinking about this stuff, you would probably dig the book.
I started off by warning him that whatever time frame for "success", whatever that means, he had probably needs to be doubled or tripled and even then it might not be accurate. That despite this truth, the most important thing is to start the thing you want to do, and not wait for the time to be right, or the thing to be perfect, or yourself to be qualified.
I talked about how important it was for me to come out from hiding behind a handle or business name and start building myself up as a brand (or reputation, if that phrase makes your stomach turn). How sharing the journey worked better than pretending to be on top of everything. How being thoughtful about how you portrayed yourself was important, but so was just being consistent about producing content.
While the goal might be to become ridiculously good at whatever your thing is, that's too high a bar to set for beginning. Instead, the true bar is, are you good enough to bring value to someone at a price point you can accept for now? If so, then begin, and let the economic incentive drive your improvement in your chosen thing by getting you to do a lot of it. I heard a story about Tony Robbins the motivational speaker (although I think he doesn't use that term) how when he was starting out, he looked at people in the field he was just starting in with so much more experience than him, and he set out to close that gap by just doing what they were doing, but doing four times as much in the same amount of time. You can do this same thing with whatever you do.
Say you have a job and you need to keep it until whatever you are starting begins to bring in money, right? Get up at five, or work in the evenings instead of watching whatever show you are bingeing. Keep kicking that can down the road. Telling yourself that you have no idea what you are doing with bookkeeping? Have the mild panic attack, take a deep breath and break that problem down into its constituent pieces. Nothing is so complicated that you cannot figure it out. You don't need to know the answers to begin. You do need to ask the questions and begin to educate yourself.
Remember that everyone, EVERYONE, started out in the same spot. Don't even bother comparing your situation to someone else's unless it is to reverse engineer what they did so you can do it too. Other than that, run your own race.
Spend your money on your business. Spend it on a bookkeeper to help you a few hours here or there, or on insurance, or on a printer or on a website. Don't spend it on buying more tools or clothes or dinner out or some new toy. You can waste a lot of money in life. Use your money to further your goals.
Speaking of goals, write them down. Figure out what steps would get you there. Write those down. Now throw that out because how you think you will get there is almost certainly not how you will get there. Business plans are not something that is written down that you adhere to. Business plans are the ever shifting sense you have of what is now possible that wasn't possible last week, or the week before, because you have been active and aren't in the same place now that you were then.
Be prepared to be poor. We have been poor for many years, and are just now in the strange space of not being poor and not NOT being poor. Part of this is that my wife has been in school for the last three years and will be for another year and a half. Part of this is that it takes time to build anything up. If you want to experience the joy, frustration and deep satisfaction of building something yourself, of owning it, then be prepared to tighten your belt, at least for a few years.
Finally, being self-employed, especially in these early lean years, means hustling. I was recently at an outdoor table at a fantastic Moroccan restaurant on a date with my wife, when I overheard a young man next to us say that he could never work for himself because he doesn't want to hustle. And I thought, "yup, spot on", because when you are pushing to grow something, the one thing you can't leverage is your time. You only have so much, and it will always be a limiting factor, used to the max. Here I am at 10:44 pm, finishing telling this to you and then I will go to bed and get up at 5:30 to hustle some more. That's just the truth. When you are supporting your family, or when you have big dreams, or when you can taste that this moment in history or in your life is a particular pivot point, how could you do any less?
So several years ago my mother gave us a CD of kid music by a guy I never heard of, named Justin Roberts. It took me a couple of listens to fall in love with it, but then it quickly became a touchstone for our family, with songs that are at turns funny, wise, tender, delightfully quirky and always musically lush and interesting.
Flash forward to three days ago when I had the face palm moment of realizing that I could hunt for more of his work on Spotify, and found that he had 10 other albums. Of course. Treasure trove!
As we started to dive into this guy's catalogue, though, there was an interesting realization: Somewhere in his 3rd and 4th albums, he underwent a sea change, and his music went from good to transcendent.
Now you may laugh at the idea of a kid musician being transcendent, but I spent several hours last night with tears in my eyes listening to his music as I compiled a playlist of my favorite songs on Spotify. Let me back up to explain.
Justin Roberts was a founding member of the indie rock band Pimentos for Gus, when he started working as a Montessori teacher. He started writing songs for his students, and then started recording them. So far, pretty typical stuff. His first couple of albums were very acoustic, with maybe some bongos, and for a younger crowd. But starting in his third and really changing in his fourth album, he started pulling in more rock sounds, electric, regular drums and bass, synth and horns. The vocals became more layered and cascading. His songs were clearly aimed more at the 6-12 crowd, and as such are still earnest but have more complexity. Often there are thematic nods (like a truly Beach Boys harmony wall on a song about kickboards) that evoke certain genres, and the words are just the right mix of earnest, true and goofy.
For anyone still wondering what the heck I could be tearing up about, I dare you to listen to these five songs: It's Your Birthday, Fire Drill, Trick or Treat, Recess and School's Out (Tall Buildings). You will see how this guy uses endless melodic hooks, satisfying chord progressions, backing vocals, horns and modulations to really make you FEEL. Something, even if you can't put your finger on it.
The thing that I have been obsessing about though, besides the music itself, is the sea change that you can feel in Roberts' music, where he brought in the chops he must have developed in Pimentos for Gus to this other music. The result is a music that is as satisfying as it is groundbreaking. He's been doing it for 23 years now, and the change happened on year 8. So that's interesting to me as well, the idea that wherever I'm at in my own life, there's probably a sea change coming up, something that will separate where I am now from where I will end up.
I like the idea of thinking in terms of sea changes, because they encourage the making of creative leaps. Like writing kid music with the complexity of adult music. I don't know what it will be for me, whether it will be more for my carving or my writing, but I'm inspired to think in this way. Often the juxtoposition of two related but generally compartmentalized disciplines leads to this sort of leap forward, but the very nature of thing means that it is hard to see in the moment.
So for now I pay attention. I listen to how the trumpet sings in counterpoint to the voice. I listen to the modulation at the end of the song and let that tug on my heartstrings. And I dream of the day that I figure out how to do that for myself.
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.