This morning, I got up with my wife at 5 am. She was heading off to a clinical rotation as part of nursing school; I was heading off to the couch.
My task was to label and stuff copies of Spoonesaurus Magazine, the spooncarving magazine I publish with my partner Matt White (the guy who makes my knives). I had two big boxes of printed magazines, two cases of manila envelopes, and an enormous spaghetti pile of printed label stickers I had printed the night before. I pulled then end of the string of labels over, peeled one, stuck it on an envelope, grabbed a magazine and slid it inside, pulled the cover on the sticky flap and smoothed it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
My earliest job was washing eggs at a local farm. Then it was harvesting strawflowers in bunches to be dried. Later on I helped transplant flowers and harvest squash and mustard at a different farm. Then when I met my wife, we farmed together growing vegetables and helping start a yogurt business, both situations rife with repetitive tasks. My current work at the Christmas tree farm is a minefield of them. Even the spoons and blanks I make repetitive in their way. So I am no stranger to the nuances of how this goes.
When you first start a repetitive task, your mind is fresh. Your body doesn't hurt and you are thinking a lot about what you are doing. That lasts for 15-30 minutes. Then you get into a pleasant hum of routine where your mind starts to wander, and sometimes (but not always) you make important creative leaps. That lasts for another indeterminate length of time, depending on how uncomfortable the task is, your state of mind, the quality of the day or your company.
Then you hit the wall. As anyone who's ever done much running can relate with, you reach that place where your mind resists continuing doing what you're doing. Sometimes it's because it hurts (transplanting long rows of crops comes to mind) and sometimes it's just because you feel done.
But you push past the wall, and coast from then until the end. In this respect, it is helpful if the task doesn't require much alertness (driving a car or operating machinery or power tools, for instance, are not situations where you'd want to push through the wall; stop and take a break). I finished labeling and stuffing all the magazines in about an hour and a half, and I was grateful to be done.
We often demonize repetitive tasks, go to great lengths to avoid them, but I think they offer something valuable, particularly in situations where you are deciding for yourself how long you do them, when to stop and take a break or do something else. First of all, we are fooling ourselves if we think that life doesn't require repetitive tasks. If we aren't doing them, someone else is on our behalf. Leaning in to the repetitive tasks in your life is a way of being grateful for all of the work of that sort that others do for us, whether we realize it or not. Leaning in is also good for my mind. I don't meditate, but I am convinced that all the repetitive tasks in my life serve the same purpose. I wouldn't want them to predominate my day (and I know intimately what that's like), but I am glad that I have a hefty dose of them, and I start to feel unmoored when I don't have something like that required of me.
The other benefit repetitive tasks (at least real, physical ones, not so much digital tasks) provide is a sense of accomplishment you get from looking back at a greenhouse full of seedlings, or a truck full of harvested produce, or, in my current case, a couch full of magazines ready to be mailed. There is something about the sameness of it that lends to this satisfaction, making it more poignant, perversely, than a more linear task like building something. It is the deep animal part of our brain, I think, pleased to be stockpiling something, anything, against the coming winter.
I got asked recently how many irons I had in the fire. I'm used to giving the quick rundown to friends and family of what's going on, but I hadn't sat down to write out a comprehensive anytime soon, if ever.
It was a lot.
I'm not going to list them all because that's not the point, but what IS the point is how I went from where I was three, five, ten years ago, a place with many fewer things happening, to right now.
It is easy to look at someone doing a lot of things and feel a panic, like they have some insurmountable edge on the rest of the world. How do they do it all? More importantly, how did they get all those things going in the first place?
The secret is that a long list of things going on always starts with just one thing. Then you add something. Then another. Then another. You say yes to stuff. You get better, faster, more efficient. You keep the bar as low as is reasonable given circumstances and expectations. You keep kicking the cans down the road, especially once that initial wave of enthusiasm has passed.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to just focus on the next thing, and to add just one thing at a time until each is settled in your routine and sense of self. Want to start a podcast? Do it. But wait to do the collaboration with that person you admire until you get the podcast settled.
Some people like to do fewer things exceptionally well. If that is you, that's great. It's not me. I like to have lots of eggs, and lots of baskets, and to constantly be establishing more. I figure even if a few break, it's a net gain. (Take that metaphor with as much generosity as you can muster). But you don't make it happen, or lead a happy life, by starting everything at once. At the same time, it's important to recognize that just one angle of attack is less likely to succeed than ten. Particularly since they are not acting separately, each working out or not as it happens, but rather synergistically, where each additional thing I do pulls more energy into the whole conglomeration.
So wherever you are on your journey, take stock. What is the obvious next move? What is the next move after that? Map it out. Then go and make it happen. Don't wait to get it perfect before beginning, but just start and adjust and then adjust some more. Experiment. Iterate. Pivot. Explore new things and let others fall away. Keep adding things to the mix. And before you know it, you too will have a lot of irons in the fire.
Just what to do with them is another discussion altogether.
Robin Wood just wrote a new blog post about how he uses Instagram. As always, it was thorough, articulate, and generous. And something about it didn't sit with me right.
If I try to put my finger on it, it stems from the idea that Instagram rewards those who post only once a day, and also that if you are operating a business through Instagram then it's important to maintain the integrity of of the top nine posts, making sure they are on message and form a cohesive whole. The thing is, I think both of these things are true. I think Instagram DOES reward people who post once, and I think it is easier to amass a large following if you only post about one thing. Spoons, for instance.
I also think it's deadly boring.
When I follow someone, I LIKE knowing a bit about their life. I LIKE that my feed has captured personal moments (not private moments, there is a difference) that are the most meaningful things.
I try to post three times a day. One for me, one to promote something I'm doing, and one to provide educational value to my community.
What is Instagram for, anyway? If it is just to amass a large following, and if that comes at the price of creating a body of work that renders me more distant from my community, more one-dimensional, then count me out. That sounds like a recipe for getting stuck. I've seen it, seen people who feel like they CAN'T share more of themselves for fear of alienating a following built of people who aren't interested in all the other parts of themselves.
We run the risk of becoming caricatures of ourselves.
Is my approach slower? You bet.
Is it sometimes hard to feel like I could do things differently and get more followers, build momentum I see other people amassing? (Leaving aside for the moment the ridiculousness of comparing ourselves to other people who are living completely different lives, started in different places and have different goals). Yes, it is hard.
Is it tempting to think of how I can game the system rather than focusing on how I can make Instagram valuable to me? It sure is.
But at the end of the day, I have this one life. I have one moment, the present, to try to make a difference in the world. I have only right now, and one thing for sure I know is that I want Instagram, and ANY social media or technology I use, to work FOR ME, not twist myself to fit it.
So if you visit my feed and see something that's not a spoon, deal with it. If I post more than you're interested in, that's fine; it wasn't for you. It was for me. And you can take it or leave it.
When is the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy?
If you are like I was two years ago, the answer is "When I need to". I no longer think that.
Now I think the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy is several years before you need it. How do you know when you'll need it? You don't.
Which means that the right time to start investing in a new marketing strategy is always right now.
This is hard, because there is only so much time in the day.
This is hard, because you aren't even totally comfortable with the daily operation of your current strategy.
This is hard, because it means an upfront investment of time and energy, sometimes for years, before you start seeing any momentum.
This is hard, because there is always the voice in your head asking if you're crazy to be jumping in so many directions at once.
I've been thinking all this lately, as I've begun to wonder (not for the first time, and not uniquely) what instagram will be like in five years. Ten years. Where will the attention be? I certainly intend to be still hustling for a living, still carving spoons and teaching, but what on earth gives me confidence that things will be as they are now in even two years? Facebook is only 14 years old. Ten years ago, basically none of the other social media platforms existed. So while in the day-to-day, Instagram sure feels like where this spooncarving scene is playing out, that will almost certainly change. Four years ago there was much more going on with Facebook. For all I know there still is.
But another wrinkle is that where the spooncarving scene seems to be is not necessarily the most fruitful ground for me.
So in an effort to keep myself exploring, I'm pushing myself into a number of new spaces. First is was this blog, then the magazine, carving out a real, physical space. Then is was the Spooncarving Collective on an app called Mighty Networks, which we've turned into a lovely hub of spoon-related conversation. Oh yeah, and I wrote a book (face palm).
Along the way, I've dipped my toe into Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Snapchat and Reddit. None stuck, in the sense that I didn't feel excited enough by the resources to warrant the time needed to monitor additional social media conversations.
Lately though, I've been feeling that same edginess, the wariness that comes from being allergic to having all my eggs in one basket. So I've been pushing into YouTube more, and today I just wrote my first article on Medium. I'll be revisiting LinkedIn with an idea, and probably start using Facebook for the Christmas tree farm this fall.
One final idea I'm pursuing is starting to teach on Skillshare. I haven't yet started, this is still in thought only, but I'm liking what I'm learning so far.
Does it seem like alot? Imagine this: in two years, Instagram will be different. Already I feel it in the rising percentage of sponsored posts I see. Will it die? I don't think so. Will attention drift elsewhere? Possibly. Will it be important to garner attention from many different sources as it will be harder to gain meaninful attention on Instagram? Almost certainly.
So recognizing all this, and recognizing that any alternative beyond just doubling down on Instagram is harder, recognizing all this, what are you going to do about it?
This weekend I taught my six year old daughter how to scrub a toilet.
Now, in all fairness, I didn't make her. I was cleaning the house and I asked "who wants to learn how to clean a toilet?!" and my older daughter kept her nose stuck in her book, while the younger one sang out "I do!". So it was optional.
I showed her how long to squirt in the cleaner, how to scrub with the brush, rinse the brush by flushing, and then the correct order to spray and wipe down the handle, lid and bowl with vinegar to go from the cleanest to the dirtiest surface. I told her how used to work on a boat that took people on six day cruises, and how we had to clean the bathrooms on that boat eight times a day. Then we went upstairs and I talked her through the second toilet.
Like most parents we know, my wife and I walk a fine line between letting our kids have as much unstructured time to lounge and dream and be bored as possible, while also requiring that they help set the table, clear the table, open the chickens, get the mail and mostly-but-not-really stay on top of putting away their laundry. We've lately been including them in cooking more, and we require that they prepare most of their own breakfasts, although we do cut the bread for them, usually.
We want our girls to grow up with a baseline knowledge of how to run a household, and an appreciation for how to put in the work to do that well. We also want them to feel like they are contributing.
The thing is, it's easy to forget this in the whirlwind of doing stuff. If you are like me, you are an absolute ninja at cleaning the house while simultaneously putting in a load of laundry, feeding the animals, scrubbing out the sinks and tidying away the coffee table (or so I wish). In those moments of whipping the house into shape so that I can feel on top of the day, it's easy to lose sight of the larger opportunity to share with the girls how to do these things, and help them gain an appreciation for why they are important.
I feel this in my work, too. I look forward to including the girls in the work on the farm, but I also know it will take a push on my part to make that time commitment. Because there is always an upfront cost to be paid in the time spent teaching a new skill before it makes any sort of sense from an economic or time point of view. And while I know, I KNOW, that that is not the point, it can be hard, in the heat of my own work, to remember to share that work with my daughters. But I want that more than anything. I think it will be the making of them.
So after dinner tonight (peanut noodles), while waiting for the kids to finish so we could have the rare treat of a dessert (pumpkin pie), I sat down at the piano and started noodling around. I grew up with a piano, and have always loved the way they pull the home around themselves, becoming the center of family life, and while I don't really play (despite six years of lessons), I remember enough to pick out melodies and baselines. As I was sitting there, I started playing and realized it sounded like one of my ALL TIME favorite themes, the opening theme from Star Trek Voyager (also instantly bringing me back to late nights the summers I was 14 and 15). So I teased it out by ear, and then what I heard made me so excited I had to go get the girls and explain to them what I'd figured out.
The thing is, the melody and baseline of this theme (and honestly, if you don't know what I'm talking about, you should look it up and listen to it now, it is one of the most beautiful 2 minutes you will ever spend), the melody and baseline have this remarkable interplay where they are dissonant (read, side by side notes on a keyboard) and then resolved (notes that have a key in between them). I'm not a musical theorist nor have I ever had any training in such, but I explained to the girls (and they got it right away) how this interplay of dissonance and resolution tugs at you, making things feel jangly and then calm.
We got all excited and then went into the kitchen to have the pie, and while we were doing that I pulled up the theme on the computer, plugged in a speaker for more sound, and then we listened over and over to the orchestra playing this beautiful melody, and could hear it pull and resolve. The girls moved the island to the side so they could dance, and my wife practiced her figure skating moves while holding a chew toy for the puppy in one hand.
When listening to the orchestra version, I noticed something else, which is that the power of the piece comes in part from the tradeoff of different instruments taking turns playing the same melody. At first it is French horns, muted and far away, and then it is strings, haunting and lyrical. Finally, a blaze of trumpets soars through at the end, making your hand stand up.
I often lament that spooncarving is not a joint thing like making music. I wish there was some way we as a community could do something together that was more than the sum of our efforts, and I wonder what that might look like. I think it might have to do with these things, with the use of dissonance and resolution, and with taking turns playing with the same melodies.
I'm not sure how this could be created. I'm not even sure if it's possible. But if I can make people feel like how I feel when I listen to this theme, then I know I will have done it. And that's something that's worth pursuing.
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.
Usually when I wake up I get dressed and grab my phone just before going downstairs. I slip it into my pocket unread but then start to check in as I make coffee, lay a fire, open the curtains. But not this morning. This morning I left my phone upstairs.
I did all those other things in a remarkable quiet frame of mind.
Now I usually hate when people get all philosophical about technology use. Especially when it is the technology and their use of it that allowed their success. And I am keenly aware that I lean on technology and my phone for community, interaction, validation, marketing, engagement, posturing and flag waving. It brings a lot of good into my day and it allows me to earn a living doing what I love working for myself. And for that I am grateful.
But this morning, as I sat near the open woodstove door, the fire just starting to crackle on the hearth and dawn creeping slowly down the windowpanes, I was reminded that while social media and connection can invigorate and excite, challenge and inspire, it cannot lead me to that quiet place in my head where I feel calm and centered and ENOUGH. How could it? It lives and breaths more, more, more.
This morning was an exercise in less, and the balance that can bring to everything that follows.
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.