Facing fears

Fear of failing. Recovering from bad experiences. The fright of not being perfect, or even good enough. This is certainly not a laughing matter. Let’s talk about mental health for a moment.

Earlier I wrote an article about accepting limitations. In that article I talk about accepting ones limitations and skill level. By focusing on the flaws, we end up looking at a problem in stead of marveling over the fact that we made A ThingTM. This is probably rooted pretty deep in our culture and society – eating disorders, mental problems and low self esteem are all by-products of focusing on flaws.

If we get hung-up in the fact that the corner of a lap joint misses a tiny splinter (yes, I’ve done that) we miss the fact that we actually did a very nice job making the joint! And all other aspects of said joint are perfect!

The culprit!

Look at that joint! It was hand-cut with a panel saw. It is dead tight and will last for generations.

It is PERFECT! I see that now. I have accepted that I am not a woodworking master craftsman, and I am okay with that. I’ll continue to make mistakes. I will continue to be upset over blemishes and flaws, but I won’t let them steal my focus. Acknowledge, adjust and move on!

Fearing that you may make mistakes can really cripple you. I used to work in retail, and had a few experiences with some of the part-time workers we hired being afraid of doing something wrong to the extent that they avoided customers or did not make a sale. I had to work with them and show them a lot of support until they overcame their fear. I told them “just do your best, and if you really screw up we’ll correct it for you. Afterwards we’ll review the situation together so that you learn and don’t do it no more.”

If you make an utter mess out of your first hand cut dovetail, does that really define you as a woodworker? Absolutely not! What if your hundredth dovetail still look abysmal? Keep going! You don’t win the Olympic gold medal in 100 meter dash just because one day you decided to give it a go! Besides, being number one is not really important. Being in the race, on the other hand, is.

I don’t say that you can do ANYTHING. That is not true, and we should not tell ourselves (or our children that, despite the Donald achieved becoming president. But he’s rich.). You cannot do anything you put your mind and effort into. We cannot all be Olympic gold medalists in 100 meter dash! Someone has to build the track, make the timing equipment (Omega employees are people too) and so on and so forth.

But you will see that there are a LOT of things you can do – things that you might not have believed you could ever do. If you just put your time, concentration and effort into it, you will – most likely – be able to do it just fine! Effort coupled with willingness to learn from mistakes – one’s own and other’s – puts really good cards on your hand.

Before this turns further into a motivation speech, let us look at a post I came across:

I find that the “fear of failure” comes from “actual past failures”. My pile of kindling with poor dovetail attempts cut in the ends attest to my past and continued failure at this task. Woodworking is supposed to be relaxing and invigorating. “Mount Dovetail” is in the way and will remain insurmountable.

A gentleman at an undisclosed site

Oh, how this resounded with me!

For years I dreamed about getting a woodworking shop. About all the machines I’d need to buy. Where should the table saw go? Which layout would work best? I drew the shop in SketchUp, pondered over minute details – and got an estimate on the building I would’ve needed.

I was devastated!

If I were to get my dream shop AND be able to do any of the other things I wanted to do, I would need to save money for decades! It became my mountain, and I could not climb it.

The problem was where my focus lied. My expectations. I was living in a future I might never behold, while my life walked by. I know, it sounds like a bad song lyric – but that’s what I did. I had the wrong focus. I was concerned with what I did not have while ignoring what I actually had.

I have spent years of my life working on shifting my focus to here an now. To what I can enjoy and what I can do NOW. Not in five years. The Christian in me also points out that I might face the Lord tomorrow, so I should not worry about it (too much). It is a sound advice, although perhaps a bit grim from a woodworking standpoint.

Therefore don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own

Matthew 6:34

Whether you are a believer or not, Christian or not – this is a really good advice. In a woodworking context we should not be too harsh in our self-judgement. That tiny splinter is missing. So what? Nobody will ever know, because they will marvel over what you have made!

Besides, unless they have tried doing what you do, they don’t know. The woodworkers who know, knows. Those who don’t, don’t. Or how ever that TikTok-fad goes…

I know where the error is, but you need to go even closer to spot it. That edge is 10mm thick, by the way.

In my Instagram feed, I get a lot of gorgeous woodwork. Exquisite pieces of furniture made to perfection by furniture designers, students and master craftsmen and -women. If you look at those things, they are all dead perfect! Not a gap to be seen in any joint, perfect dovetails – everything is 100%.

How long do you think it took to make those things? Working full time or most probably a LOT more than that (Paul Sellers talked about this when he made the White House pieces; how they worked really long days).

If you spend a whole day making a miter joint, it better be dead perfect!

And so we look at those pieces and compare our own creations to the glamorous examples from the glossy print. It is just like the fashion industry and all those influencer nobodies the world seems to fill up with. The woodworking equivalent of Instagram and Snapchat filters and the makeup artists from the east.

The same mechanism that makes teenagers develop mental problems, eating disorders and low self esteem is at play here, and we should be mindful of it. You may struggle with a technique for years, and even then you might never get it right. For me, freehand sharpening is a good example. I can do it, but not very well. And believe me, I have tried! I now have a Veritas honing guide (my proverbial snapchat “sharpness” filter), and I’ve moved on. I am okay with that.

The gist of the aforementioned article I wrote about accepting ones limitations, is that if you put your bars up high, you may never be able to jump them. In stead of striving for a target you may never reach, perhaps you should put the bar lower. Not so low that you can move over it by crawling, of course, but achievable. This will not induce fear, I think. Of course, some people have transformed lowering the bar into an art form! Making lowering the bar great again!

To be fair, he’s not the only example. By far! But a bloody good’un!

By lowering some bars in my life I’ve become a much happier man. In the context of this blog, my shop is a perfect example. The dream used to be this huge shop filled with lots of expensive machines like those shops Youtube seems to be full of. My current shop is about half the size and very few machines. And I am very, very happy with it!

Lowering the bar – that seems like a negative thing to do. What if we in stead just raises our platform? What if we define our level based on a different “zero point”? If I compare myself to people like Matthew Cremona, Peter Follansbee and Christopher Schwarz, where do I find that bar? Pretty high up, I think. What if I in stead look at where I am today, compared to a year ago? Ten years ago? Where do I find myself compared to other woodworkers?

Perhaps the last example is the best one. If we look at any woodworking group, there are lots of amazing work being done. And there are some real laxatives too. The majority, though, makes really good things that aren’t flawless. I can usually spot several things that aren’t as good as they could be, but none the less it is a wonderful piece. I am left impressed by the skill and craftsmanship, the level of knowledge I recognize is required to be able to make that thing. Since I know and understand that, I realize that the craftsman and I are on a rather level field.

Hand cut M&T, by me. This one was PERFECT! So I know I can…

By redefining where you find your zero, you can elevate yourself to a place where you can focus on what you actually can do, not what others can do so much better. As I pointed out in the other article:

 (…)How many people among the 7.6 billion people (7600 million) currently living on this piece of rock can say the same thing? Let us assume that half a million people in the entire world can cut dovetails by hand. If you are among those 500.000 people, you are among the 0.0066% that can do it! 

That’s 0.66 ‱ (permyriad). Or 66 PPM (Parts Per Million). We’re in “whaaat country” now.

Swap dovetails with anything, even knowledge. Knowing how to do a task while not being able to currently pull it off yourself – that’s something! I cannot cook like Gordon Ramsay, but I know how he makes his beef Wellington. There’s millions upon millions of people in this world who doesn’t. I could give it a go and expect a pretty decent result…

Perhaps we should take a few steps back and choose a different vantage point when we look at our creations. Being almost 44 years old, I know that if I move back far enough (not that far, really…) I don’t see the missing splinter or the hairline gap no more. The imperfect project transforms into a perfect one. Zero has been moved and any reason for fearing failure has gone away.

Here is my reply to the gentleman’s post quoted above, and I’ll end this ramble with it as I think it is rather good:

Left or right spin?

-Your mountain may seem to be a heap of failures, or it could be a mound of the most exquisitely shaped kindling.

In physics, we need to establish a zero point or a point of reference to be able to tell anything meaningful. Which way does galaxies spin? If you approach from the top, the galaxy spins clockwise. If you come in from the bottom, it spins counter-clockwise.
But what is up and what is down? Top and bottom?

The reference point you choose can make a whole galaxy spin the other way.

Choose wisely.

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