For the next six weeks, this blog will be the deep context support to the Virtual Apprenticeship Challenge that I'm running. The VAC is a free challenge I'm running to help people gain a little more structure around taking the steps to make their spooncarving (or whatever your thing is) to the next level. It is intended to be very self directed, so these blogs will provide the real instruction while the challenge directions will be issued in a direct message to each of the participants.
Week 1 is about doing your thing every day.
That might seem like an obvious thing. But it's super hard to do. That means doing it when you'd rather go to bed. That means getting up early to do it. That means doing it when you're not inspired, or feeling rushed, or when you need to make some sort of sacrifice for it.
Sometimes it is fun too, don't get me wrong. But plenty of times, the discipline that is needed requires sacrifice. So why do it?
The reason you need to do your thing every day is because that is what it takes to get good at what you do. Carving for seven hours one day a week is nowhere near as helpful as carving an hour every single day of the week. And if your thing is as obscure as spooncarving, you need to be even better to reach the place where you want to be. Because while the competition is small, the pie of demand is also small. Competition is a topic for another day, but my point is this: if you want to start selling your work; if you want to gain a reputation that you can leverage into opportunities; if you just want to reach a place where carving (or whatever) feels like something you have mastery over, then you need to make the commitment to do it every day.
Now maybe you don't want to. That's fine. There is lots of room for everyone in the spooncarving (or any scene). But the 88 of you who asked to take part in this presumably wanted your feet held to the fire a little bit, so this is me doing it. This is some straight talk. You will need to sacrifice for it.
So if you are looking at the rest of the day and haven't figured out when you are going to carve, stop and make a plan. If you keep forgetting to make a spoon blank during the day and then can't use the axe early in the morning, go do that so you can set an alarm, get up while everyone else is still sleeping, and pay your dues. Incredible things are hard to do. You will need to sacrifice for it.
I would also suggest that you don't let yourself get too bogged down in any one spoons. Don't sit down on a fresh day and pick up an old spoon. The lessons you learned there are learned: carve something new, learn some new lessons. I like the idea of giving yourself just an hour (or an hour and a half, if you must) to carve, and to push to complete something in that time. That way you push yourself to learn lessons about efficiency, what is good enough, what matters and what doesn't, and where you are weakest. Even if you never intend to carve to sell (in which case this whole project might not be for you) this is a helpful structure. So push yourself to finish each thing in that time, to the best of your ability. It will be frustrating at first. You will need to sacrifice for it.
This discipline, this carving every day, will need to go on for a long time if you want to win at this. And by win, I don't win because someone else has lost. I mean win like you succeeded in doing what you dreamed of. I carved every day for a year before anyone paid any attention. And I was pretty bad at first. But I loved it and I was inspired and I was disciplined. And then, lo and behold, I found out that I had learned some things and could do some things. It will take you a long time before you gain any traction, and it is up to you, to your inner fire, to keep going in the radio silence. This is hard. You will need to sacrifice for it.
I still carve every day (or close to it, through a confluence of events I cannot carve today, ironically). And while it is true that carving is my sanity, my meditation, my balance and my purpose, that is not why I carve every day. I carve every day because that is what is required to achieve what I want to achieve. This is hard. But I am prepared to sacrifice for it.
A vastly underrated skill in my life is the ability to look at a situation as it changes, determine what matters, and shift course accordingly. My wife used to marvel at how I could see our landlord walking down the meadow from his house and go into mess management, stacking things and piling things and making the house as presentable as possible in thirty seconds. The point wasn't to actually CLEAN the house; that is a different skill. The point was to hide the baby diapers drying around the woodstove, clean up the mess of mail on the side counter and line up the boots to make a good first impression when he walked in the door.
I was once in a meeting for a non-profit I worked for in which we were asked to brainstorm what we could do to adjust to increasing pressures and expectations. Everyone else said that they could work longer, harder, multitask, leverage technology, etc. I was the only person who said I would audit my priorities and make sure I got the important things done and not sweat the rest. That didn't go over well, and not surprisingly, I didn't last long there.
This fall has been a bout of surprises, with my carefully calibrated time getting pinched in one way or another by accidents, illnesses and overreaching. This came to a head the other day when I was at the grove scything the meadow that I drive my truck on to get to the different staging areas for when I harvest trees and balsam greens.
I started off mowing everything nicely, really doing a thorough job. After several days of this I was feeling more pressure so I started mowing faster and more sloppily. Then I realized I didn't have time enough to do even that so I started just batting down the goldenrod and woody stuff. Then I hit a big patch of goldenrod as the sun was setting and the kids (who had been playing with the dogs in field) were getting cold. I realized I could stop and come back to it tomorrow, OR (and this is what I did) I could just walk around and cut all the woody stuff and let the grass and goldenrod go uncut.
Messy? Yes. Not the world's finest job? You bet. Get the job done? To the extent that was needed. The point was, I had more important things to spend my time on. By boiling the task down to what actually mattered I was able to keep myself on track and keep up momentum, even as the ground shifted under my feet.
This level of triage is something we apply all the time in our lives. And I would guess that more often than not, when we find ourselves overwhelmed or overworked, it is from a lack of exercising this principle. At any moment, we need to be asking ourselves, "what is the most important use of this time?" Because at the end of the day, our time is all we have.
Bend your standards. Make your effort count. Triage your life.
And oh yeah, you can now sign up for my blog! There's a button on the homepage of my website. Not that I know how to make use of that feature yet. But I know I sure like the convenience of the one blog I follow showing up in my inbox. So I'm gonna figure out how to do that for you, too.
Sometime ago, and I can't remember where (but it was probably on the Freakonomics podcast) I heard that one of the biggest correlations with success later in life was people who took the time to back into their parking spot. At the time I thought "what of load of hooey! Ha!" Clearly, I was someone who did not bother to back into spots. Logic has it that you spend the time either way, whether at the beginning or at the end, right?
Then we bought our house, and I started parking our truck over on the other side of the house to keep a space free in the driveway for visitors. There is a telephone pole on the opposite side of the street, and I can't tell you how many close calls I had backing out of that spot, where I came just inches away from crashing my tailgate into that pole. Finally I decided to commit to always backing into that spot.
And you know what? It's not the same thing at all.
When you are pulling into a spot, taking the extra minute of backing into the spot leaves you in a better position for the future, when you can pull out unimpeded. You can see the road and what for a safe moment to back in, whereas when backing OUT of a spot I have had numerous close calls. So backing in is safer and better in the literal sense.
I found to my surprise that it has deeper ramifications, though. When you take the time to prepare for your departure ahead of time, you are setting up a cascade of small decisions that together touch every aspect of your life. It's like making your bed in the morning. Because you made the bed, you face other tasks of the day with more determination and follow-through, and at the end of the day you have the pleasure or consolation (depending on how the day went) of getting into a bed that is made. Backing into my truck spot has meant that I carry some of that mentality with me, thinking at every step of everything in my day how I can make it easier for myself later by doing something now that I won't need until later.
Will it make me successful later in life? I don't know.
But I do know that it has made each day that I practice it a little more successful than it would have been otherwise.
Today my new apprentice Dano came over and as we worked we talked, a new phenomenon for me, mostly. One of the things we talked about was, what is the long term plan beyond just making more stuff?
It wasn't phrased quite that way, but I will repeat it, because it is a question I think we don't ask enough of ourselves as makers.
What is the long term plan beyond just making more stuff?
This is in the context of making a living. If you are making stuff just to make you happy, great. If you are at the stage (and really you never leave this stage) of learning a lot from the process of making stuff, also great. But it still bears asking, what is the long term plan for you to make a living doing this things other than just making more?
Sometimes making more works. If you have some way to scale up production, hire people, build a brand, then that's one answer. Sometimes making more works just scaling up your own time doing it, because it's something more lucrative like clock repair.
In my case, however, I can increase prices a bit, I can improve how much I make each day, I can improve the demand by building a strong customer base, but I still need to ask myself what the longer term plan is.
The answer, I think, is to shift the paradigm. Instead of asking how much of something I'm making, I should be asking how much value I'm bringing to the world.
Some of that value is in making a beautiful object for someone. Some of that value is in making spoon blanks available to people who don't have ready access to wood. Tool collaborations also fall under this umbrella. Those sources of value are limited by my time and energy.
More scaleable sources of bringing value are sharing what I know, both deliberately and through the process of making what I make. This can be teaching, and the @spoonesaurus account, and through posts on my home feed, and just answering questions.
Another way to bring value is to inspire people by sharing my path. Hence the blog, much of my feed, the book, the magazine.
The final, and most powerful, way of bringing value to people is to help build community. This is the Spoonesaurus Gatherings that Matt and I host, and this is the goal of much of how I interact on social media.
Some of these forms of bringing value are easy to monetize. You sell the spoon, the tool, the workshop. Some require more strategy. The magazine only exists because of the free content we share that serves as a proof of value.
So my plan? My plan going forward is to both work as hard as I can to support my family by doing all of these as much as I can, while at the same time recognizing that the scaleable parts are what will allow me to enjoy the non-scaleable parts for the rest of my life. I grew up almost fetishizing manual labor and turning up my nose at business as a mindset. That has been hard to change.
But I also recognize that I need a long-term plan that is more than just me carving spoon after spoon for the rest of my life. Love of that process is a huge part of why I do what I do. But I want something more, some connection, some value that I've made possible.
I want, when I die, to have achieved more than the sum of what I've made.
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.