Saturday, March 19, 2011

the importance of failure and of being wrong

If you have spent any time in the wood shop, you've learned a few things. First, mistakes will undermine your self-esteem if you don't learn to make the best of them. If you've survived your first few weeks trying to make a few things, you've probably learned that we learn best by making a few mistakes along with whatever success we can garner from our experience. It is humbling, which is why some say that woodworking builds character. It is pretty dang hard for your successes to go to your head, without having first developed the art of self-forgiveness for all those other things that don't quite work out. You begin to realize that everything that is, is a mistake, regardless of how successful it may appear at the moment, because something new and improved is streaming down the pike, enhanced by what someone learned by screwing up, reviewing and redoing what they'd done.

So you begin to get a heads up that when things go wrong, your mistakes are giving you the heads up for what comes next, and providing the information as to how to move in that new direction. Get it? If not, boy have I got the book for you. Author Alina Tugend explores the value of making mistakes and of being wrong in her book, Better by Mistake: the unexpected benefits of being wrong. The bad thing is that our culture thinks that being wrong is a bad thing. And so people are inclined to cover up or hide their mistakes and thus allow them to become large and dangerous, like the design of nuclear power plants and the failure to adequately assess the related danger of earthquake and tsunami. You learn in the wood shop that you need to be prepared with a plan b, and you learn that when you make a mistake, you back up, assess and find a better way and you learn to celebrate your failures as the pathway to even greater success. I know my wood working readers have experiences to share on this subject. Fess up. Use the comments function below. Share the power of oops. Then...

Make, fix and create...


  1. This is massively important.

    Don't use a barrel bolt on a sliding door.

    Don't soften a wax toilet ring on your dashboard.

    Learning is mistakes.

  2. John Grossbohlin8:25 PM

    I had to laugh upon reading today's blog posting... this as I had a frustrating day in the shop experimenting with the best way to inlet Brusso Quadrant Hinges into red oak. The problem is that red oak splits easily and I've got 5/8" thick boards into which I'm going to inlet 1/2" wide hinges. I lost count of the failures! I think I finally figured out how to make a template that will work with a laminate trimmer after all hand methods failed, I was too tired to continue this evening and through experience I know when it's time to quit. This as I've made some huge blunders in the past by trying to work past the appropriate quitting time. This project is supposed to be displayed at Showcase in Saratoga Springs next weekend so it's not like I had time for this "experience!" Making my own corner plates from sheet brass with a hack saw, files, and drill press and then inletting them was easy compared to the challenges those quadrant hinges have presented!

    I also recall the first small chest of drawers I made. The solid wood carcass was joined with handcut dovetails as were the 5 drawers. At the end of the project I determined that I pretty much made two chests due to all the mistakes I had to make. In all fairness to myself I'm pretty much a self taught woodworker, it was my first chest of drawers, I did most of the work with hand tools and all the joinery by hand (dovetails, dados, mortise and tenon). By the time the chest was finished I made all new drawer/ dust frames, all new drawer sides, a couple new drawer fronts, one completely new drawer (I fouled up fitting the first one to the case), a couple new solid wood drawer bottoms, etc. Again this was a project for Showcase... it went into the truck that took it to the show smelling of boiled linseed oil as I was still applying finish at midnight! I was very surprised, even stunned, when a member of my club came up to me Saturday around noon and congratulated me on winning second place in the "Beginning Woodworker" category! I had made so many mistakes and had experienced so much stress that I never went to look at it that morning!

    I've learned how to fix or otherwise recover from a lot of woodworking mistakes... now if I can just get those Brusso Quadrant Hinges installed tomorrow morning I may actually finish the project in time for Showcase... I already know it's going to smell like finish.

  3. Aaron, I would never leave a wax toilet ring on my dashboard, but they are a great source of wax for making screws go in without breaking. The barrel bolt might be made to work on sliding doors with a bit more head scratching. Yes, Learning is mistakes.

    John, I wish I knew you were trying to use those hinges, I'd have sent you the official Brusso template for installing them. I found that you can use a story stick technique on the router table to mill the mortises for those buggers to fit. But this was AFTER I spent a lot of time making my own router templates which I liked better than the ones I got from Brusso.

    At Marc Adams one year, my students were wondering about how to install quadrant hinges. I told them that one of the things I learned was to not use them. They are too danged complicated. But I did show them how to use the router table to make the necessary set-ups and using a story stick to control left and right set ups for the lid and base.

    One good thing about showcase. There are lots of beginners and intermediate woodworkers who will appreciate your effort. And the place is full of people who've made lots of mistakes. They ARE woodworkers.

  4. Helen8:11 AM

    This is so true. In school, and in some sports programs, we worry about "self esteem" so much that our students don't learn how to handle failure or losing. They don't learn to work hard to avoid failing and losing, because they have never experienced that uncomfortable feelings that go along with it.

  5. Doug -

    You must've read my mind. I was thinking about mistakes in the classroom a few days ago & wrote a blog post on it. Mistakes will happen - the question is how a person handles them.

    --Mr. Patrick

  6. Anonymous1:59 AM

    Coincidentally, a friend pointed me to this article - part of a series "The Wrong Stuff: What it means to make mistakes". It's a different aspect of not shaming people for making mistakes, when it's likely an aspect of the larger system causing the problem.

    But of course there are the personal learning experiences. This 4-second video shows me "learning" how not to use too much force when finishing the foot of a bowl in a Jacobs chuck.