This is a “Rerun” post from the original blog – I’ll be putting these up here and there alongside the new posts but with their original date of publishing.
It seems appropriate for my first post of the new year to be about inspiration, and how we learn from our peers and role models.
You can learn an enormous amount by pure trial and error, just doing things until you learn to be good at them – this whole 10,000 Hours project of mine is partly based on that assumption. But to really leap forward and make progress at something, you need to acknowledge and learn from the contributions of those who’ve gone before you – standing on the shoulders of giants.
99% of the time, of course, the best way to learn from someone is in person. To be right there in the room with them as they do the work, observing the little details of technique, correction and attention is priceless.
A close second, though, is learning from a good video, and these days Youtube provides an almost endless bounty of craftspeople sharing their knowledge. Kevin Kelly at Cool Tools recently posted a really nice article collecting some of the best Youtube makers to learn from – he does a great job of explaining their individual styles and includes many of my favourite Youtube teachers.
The magic of actually watching somebody work, in person or on video (as opposed to just having them explain how to do something in audio or text) is that you can learn not just their skills and discreet facts like how long to heat solder or the best tool to cut leather, but by osmosis absorb a little of their style and approach – the mindset, energy and timing of the way they work which makes them so effective.
These are aspects they may not even be aware of themselves and might struggle to intentionally teach, but by watching them work and sharing their headspace a little, we can absorb a bit of that flavour to benefit our own technique. When we internalise a little of that feeling, it shapes how we make the series of choices that go into a project – to carry on or stop, simplify or branch, wait or strike.
These are some of my favourite examples, and I’ll try to explain what they’ve taught me or how they’ve affected my style of making things.
AvE (it stands for Arduino vs Evil, and he’s always kept his real name and identity private) is an extraordinary, multiskilled guy; a professional engineer who can turn his hand to machining, electronics, vehicular repairs, robotics, industrial design, construction, troubleshooting hydraulic mining equipment, prospecting, as well as skiing and snowboarding and making a damn good looking stir-fried noodle bowl out of what may or may not have been a squirrel.
From his (warning: very sweary and sometimes borderline inappropriate) videos you can learn every aspect of what goes into a well or poorly built piece of equipment, how to locate faults, replace failing components, build tools from scratch, fundamental principles of engineering and even physics – but more importantly, you can absorb a little of his unstoppable determination to push through and complete a job, past every obstacle, every failure (on his part or his equipment), every new skill needed or piece of equipment lacking.
There are numerous times, following along with his steps, when I would throw up my hands and call the whole thing a failure – when there is apparently nothing else to try, or the problem is so obscure or intricate, the tools needed so complex or difficult to manage, that I can’t see it being done – but even at that point he keeps going, and time after time finds a solution.
By seeing those outcomes and absorbing a little of that gritty optimism, I’ve learned to push on far beyond where I would usually quit a project, and anticipate a breakthrough which almost always comes. It seems a silly comparison compared to some of his extraordinary projects, but I wouldn’t have pushed through the frustration of realising I’d made my santa hat brim way too small without that feeling.
Scott Wadsworth at Essential Craftsman is the definition of an experienced worker – a career carpenter and contractor who has worked among other things as a logger, hunting guide, in concrete, steel, and works at blacksmithing in his spare time. Despite being 60 years old he has an impatient energy and drive to do the work faster and more efficiently.
While not always as safe as a cautious modern workplace would demand, his focus is to finish the job, get the work done, and as he often puts it “feed your family” – he expects each project, each individual action to have a practical outcome and maximum bang for your buck. He judges tools and techniques by their utility and economy. Whether or not you will ever build a house (as he’s done on multiple occasions), you can watch him throw around a circular saw in this video and absorb a little of his lightning fast and frictionless working style.
Steven Edholm at Skillcult is driven by a relentless, even angry focus; he has zero time for wasted time, wasted resources or wasted effort. His aim is to live off what he can gather and grow, he has fiercely strong opinions (backed up by enormous experience and constant experimentation), and wastes no time on empty theorising, particularly when it comes to those who dismiss an approach without trying it. This could be exhausting if he wasn’t also very funny, warmhearted and enthusiastic for what does work. Here’s a great example of his passion through his apparently neverending obsession with chopping wood.
I learned to make better breads (and cook better in general) by getting the vibe of the dhow cook in Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days. I am by nature a faffy cook – I fiddle with things, go slowly, go back on myself, try to fix little mistakes. Now I go as quickly as I can and try not to repeat a movement and my food is better for it.
Tom Sachs’ thoroughly wonderful “10 Bullets” (aka “Working to Code”) is full of great lessons for anyone; for me, it taught me how I could indulge my obsessive nature in the workshop without it being a detriment, and made me realise and appreciate the joy I get from little details of structure and artful organisation.
Last but not least, someone I’ve learned from my whole life in all kinds of practical ways: My dad. When I was a teenager and a twenty-something (particularly during a short period where I worked for him fulltime doing IT support and web design) he used to drive me crazy; me rushing through things at breakneck speed, often missing steps or having to fix what I’d broken, and him plodding carefully through them and making me rage with impatience as I waited for him to get to where I was.
It was only later on that I realised how powerful his slow, careful and utterly thorough approach was, particularly for troubleshooting computers or machinery – he never had to back up and re-check something because he knew he’d covered every possibility, and he drove each problem or bug into an inescapable corner and eliminated it, leaving no escape route open. His collection of happy and loyal IT clients (so loyal some have been almost impossible to detach even after he declared himself retired) keep coming back to him because they know he will do the job with absolute care and attention to detail, and when it’s done it will stay done.
I’m always grateful for what I’ve learned from him, and he still inspires me with his creativity, dedication and systematic persistence – when he and my mum moved into a new house last year he wanted a set of shelves like the ones they’d had in their old house, so he just built them, working mostly with hand tools and improvising architectural details on the fly to make them fit physically and stylistically into the space. They look like a professional carpenter built them.
So, as we go into a new year and think about our next steps, next adventures and next creations…who can inspire you?