Okay, so this last week I finally updated my website, and in so doing I shifted from showing individual spoons that I had carved (the old, last year way of doing things) to showing categories of spoons (the new, this year way of doing things). Largely this is because, after years of carving, I have settled on favorite forms that carve easily, work great, and look good while doing it.
This is an important shift towards seeing my work as a form of service, of serving the needs and desires of people who buy my work.
Carving a one of a kind spoon, someone buys it because of that spoon, and because they love it and what it represents and its connections to you and your story. This is not a bad thing.
Carving a spoon to a type becomes much more about determining what function and form would bring value to the buyer, whether because it does something particularly well or because it allows them to build a kitchen or a home or give a gift full of meaning and joy.
My forms will continue to change and evolve, but it does mean that my work has become even more recognizably my own, as I home in on particular design choices that I return to again and again.
Which brings me to an important announcement.
I HEREBY DECLARE ALL OF MY WORK TO BE OPEN SOURCE, TO BE USED AND COPIED AND EMULATED AND IMPROVED UPON AND EXPERIMENTED WITH AND SOLD BY ANYONE WHO WANTS TO, WITHOUT ANY NEED FOR PERMISSION OR ACKNOWLEDGMENT OR NOTIFICATION.
I get asked fairly regularly if its okay if somebody sells a piece they carved that ended up looking a bit like mine. Usually these queries are apologetic, as though they feel like they messed up somehow. I always feel flattered that anyone liked what I did enough to try it out. And I also am proud enough to think that my work is good in part because of the forms I choose. Like I said, they carve easily, work great and look good while doing it. So this is me setting the record straight.
If you see some shape that I carve, it is as much yours as mine. I arrived at it by standing on the shoulders of giants (to paraphrase Sir Isaac Newton), and you get to stand on my shoulders, too. That's how it works.
This kind of radical openness is what made the internet possible, when Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, decided, unlike all the other proprietary internet platforms at the time that charged a small fee, to make his web free and open source.
I believe that freely sharing all the knowledge and encouragement and love and ideas we have about spoons is what will ultimately bring our work back into the mainstream dialogue of our culture. This happens one person at a time. And every last one of them needs to feel some sense of ownership over their decision to buy and embrace what we do.
We need as many spooncarvers as possible. And as many people carving normal, everyday spoons as possible.
So if you see something of mine that you like and you want to try carving it, this is my green light to the world. I am honored to be along for the ride.
This is the time of year when I make plans. It's when I decide if I will leave a job, start a business. It's a time for figuring out what I can do that will make next year more successful than this one has been.
This is not a hope. I am not sitting here hoping that next year will be better. I'm figuring out what steps I need to take to ensure that it is. And then I do them.
This approach to success takes time. It does not happen quickly and it does not happen by chance. I have also always placed a premium on diverse sources of income, meaning my time is somewhat divided. I am emphatically NOT all in. And what I feel passionate about is hardly a high return, scaleable, hot trending buzzworthy meme.
So we (my wife and I) have been poor my entire adult life. When you are 20 and poor you barely notice it. When you are 24 and poor and are newly married it is a life choice. When you are 28 and poor and have two kids, it is frustrating and humiliating at times. When you are 34 and poor but can see a path to a place of not being poor, it sits a lot easier.
A big part of why we have been poor are our own choices. We chose to be farmers. We chose to live where we wanted to live (near family) rather than follow careers. We chose to cobble together work so we had the flexibility to pursue our own businesses. We chose to have kids young and line up the extraordinary demands of caring for small children with the early, uncertain part of our careers.
So this time of year I very consciously map out what steps I need to take to move my businesses to a stronger financial position in the next year. I make a plan. I implement the plan. And year by year, our income creeps up.
Leaving my seasonal job a couple of years ago felt like a real step back, but now, two years on, I have built my spooncarving and teaching business to the point where I earn 150% what I was earning from that job. And that was this year: next year should be even more, possibly 200%.
If this all sounds very calculating to you, you are right. I am providing for my family. It is a calculated affair. I am passionate about my work and love what I do and love sharing it, but it is also, at the core, about earning money.
This is the money that pays our mortgage. It's the money that buys our propane and groceries and electricity. It's the money that will allow us to buy a new (used) car in a couple of years when the current one becomes to untrustworthy. It's the money we put into our Roth IRA, because no one is going to invest in our old age for us.
This last week I drove down to New York to help my 93 year old grandmother pack up her house in preparation to moving up to Massachusetts to be closer to us and my parents. As I was driving down I-91, I went through a short tunnel (probably just a wide overpass, but who's counting). As I all of a sudden found myself in the tunnel, I experienced this flash of joy from the sensation of being in the dark and driving toward the daylight. It was a totally unexpected feeling, but it lingered for a long time after I was out under the sky and it was much more powerful than any appreciation of the blue sky overhead that day.
In many ways, this is an apt metaphor for where we are with our income these days. We are almost (but not quite!) not poor. We can see it coming. We have been in the tunnel for a long time, and now it is almost here. Our gleeful anticipation of it is almost certainly more poignant than anything we will feel in ten years. Right now is the time, in this year and the next, when we can most clearly taste the joy of making it, the pleasure of being in a dark tunnel and heading toward the light.
Yesterday I finally succumbed to the head cold that's been making the rounds of my family. As my wife will tell you, I turn into a puddle of goo when my sinuses fill up. Sore throat? I'm good. Sore muscles? I'll power through. Exhausted? I still have a sense of humor. But plug up my nose and I am wrecked.
Nevertheless, there are still obligations to fulfill. Two different garden centers needed balsam to keep making wreaths, so I suited up and headed out into the snow, barehanded, to cut some bales. And I have a number of manuscripts in the inbox that need editing, so I spent the afternoon doing that, too. About every five minutes I goosed myself along with a clip of something from YouTube or a round of potato chips or ice cream.
So it was a full day. At one point my younger daughter, who is five, asked my wife (who was making dinner) why I had to work if I was sick.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the double-edged sword of being self-employed. Not having a boss is wonderful. I can be flexible in my commitments, which allows me to take part in my daughters' lives in ways they totally won't appreciate until they are grown. I can take advantage of spur of the moment things like a beautiful day, a last minute invitation. I don't look to anyone for a sense of self-worth, and I feel equal to anyone.
But there are also times when work just needs to happen. I try hard to keep my word, my promises and my commitments, so sometimes I work when I would rather not.
Miserable as I was, I had to get this manuscript edited and sent off. Snowy and inconvenient as it was, I had to cut those greens. Because I said I would.
We have interesting conversations, my daughters and I, about what it means to be self-employed. How I make money by selling things to people, by helping them learn or by doing things for them. How I am in control of how much money I make, and that earning more over time is a matter of making smart choices rather than playing some sort of game to get a raise. How important it is to diversify my income streams to mitigate the risk of any one thing not working out as planned.
This is a very different sort of conversation than many of us received as kids, I would wager. Most of us are told to find a career, preferably something we are passionate about. We are told to get formal education. To arrive early and stay late. We are told to make ourselves indispensable, to bring value and to acquire expertise. All of these things are true for being self-employed, but there is an extra twist, which is that when you work for yourself, there is only you.
No one to fill in for you to take sick days.
No one to do the work you would rather not do (although you could hire someone, and that is a whole separate topic, and generally I ascribe to the paradigm of leadership where you give your employees the fun stuff and do the tough stuff yourself).
No one to tell you what to do when the s%$& hits the fan.
There is only you. And that is both freeing and terrifying. And sometimes it means you eat a half quart of ice cream, watch the Rambo clip and finish the damn manuscript.
I am usually a pretty confident guy. Enough so that it sometimes annoys my wife, who finds me overly optimistic to the point of folly.
In many ways, selling at my tree farm is easy. Unlike a farmer's market or craft fair, where 90 percent of people walking by are not even going to strike up a conversation let alone buy anything, I know with fair certainty that most anyone driving down my little dirt road is there to get a tree. Or a wreath. Or both. Maybe a spoon too. Anything else I can help you with? The question is not IF they are there to spend money, it's how much.
I don't mean this to sound crass. It's just fair to recognize that this dynamic is LOADS easier mentally and emotionally than practicing that careful nonchalant availability that is key at markets and fairs to attract customers and not scare them away.
What is hard, though, is when you start to compare sales this day to sales the same day in years past. It's all too easy to try to see trends in two data points that ultimately tell you nothing about where you are at, where you've been and where you're going. I might be having a killer day, feeling great, and then I make the mistake of looking in my book to see how it compares to last year or the year before and to see that I'm actually not tracking with sales on THOSE days.
What does it mean? Does it mean ANYTHING?
The answer, (and it is an unsatisfying answer) is that you have no idea what it means until the end of the season when you see the totals. And even THAT doesn't tell you the whole story, because you might be down and WANT to be down (as we plan to be, since the trees need a light year to gain some ground size-wise for next year, so we haven't advertised at all this year for the first time). Total number of sales also doesn't correspond to total sales nor to actual profit, since we raised our price for the first time in ten years this year and are also getting by with about half the help of previous years. So that may offset the deliberate drop in sales, although we'll have to see at the end.
The point is, it's easy to get into a lather about this in a way that is totally counterproductive to life in general and being present in the moment in particular.
But you know what does help? Helping someone. Answering a question. Asking a question. Giving a kid a pine cone. Handing out a saw. Lifting a tree onto a car roof. A genuine conversation, I have found, is the best antidote to the doubt of whether or not I am succeeding in my chosen business. Because in the end, I am in control of the trajectory of my business. I can always work harder, make smart choices for the future. But true success? True success lies in the connections we make with one another.
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.