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Friday, March 14, 2014

Desks and FEAR Loops: How a Brief Foray Into Carpentry Reminded Me of Important Truths

The Beginning
Several months ago, I borrowed an audio version of David Allen's Getting Things Done from the library. I began implementing some of his suggestions, and discovered that the system seemed to work pretty well. So well, in fact, that I decided to invest in a copy of the book on Kindle and see about implementing more of Allen's ideas in my life.

I hit my first stumbling block almost immediately: it turns out that a desk is a major component of Allen's methodology, and I had sold my desk several months earlier (I don't sit at a desk to work, and it was taking up space that could be used for other things.).

I was mulling over this conundrum with my wife one morning, when she said

"Well, why don't you just build a desk? You can probably figure it out."

Some Background

It's important to understand something about both myself and my father for this story to make sense.

My father is a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn. He grew up in apartment buildings, where, in his words, "if something broke, you called the super." If his father (my grandfather) had any particular skills at building or fixing things, he neglected to share them with my father. Who thus, had none to share with me. As a young boy, I spent some time screwing around with some of my father's tools, but I had no idea what I was doing, and received no particular guidance from him. That phase eventually passed, and between the ages of eight and well, now, I had accomplished few tasks more complicated than hanging a picture frame.  Inspired by some of Ross Enamait, I'd built myself one or two homemade pieces of training equipment, but nothing particularly fancy. A neck harness (which I need to repair.) Some thick-handled dumbbells.

But the idea of being able to build things both excites and intrigues me. So I decided that, sure, I would give this a shot.

The Process

This is the era of the internet, so going online and finding some desk plans was reasonably straightforward. So was going out and buying the wood, screws, and other assorted materials.

The decision to cut the wood myself, rather than having Home Depot do it turned out be a huge error on my part, and was responsible for me thinking of writing about this experience at all. My wife was traveling with our son, so I had the free time and lack of concern about noise to work on this...which lead to me standing out on the porch with a crappy saw, trying to figure out how the hell I was going to make this work...and deep in the FEAR loop.


I honestly don't remember if my wife just happened to call while I was doing this, or if I just broke down and called her. Either way, I looked to her to bail me out, because, despite knowing exactly what was wrong with my thinking (focusing on the negative, visualizing failure, etc.), I couldn't break myself out of the FEAR Loop. I distinctly remember saying "what the hell was I thinking? I can't do this."

Fortunately, my wife was there, and she talked me down.

I had to change my expectations. The project that I thought would take me an afternoon took a couple of afternoons. I made one or two more trips to Home Depot for some extra materials. I modified the plans to suit different dimensions, and ended up with a somewhat lopsided, but basically functional desk.

What I Learned (Or, What Does All of This Have to do with Martial Arts?)

Lesson Number One: Starting Out Is the Hardest Part

Reflecting on this experience, it occurred to me that this was the first time in years that I'd tried to do something where I started from a place of complete, total, and utter incompetence. 

Most of the skills I've attempted to learn in recent years had some correlation to learning skills I already had. My efforts at studying Judo, or my journey into the world of kettlebell and barbell lifting, while challenging, were efforts at learning how to use my body in new and different ways. I'm already pretty used to using my body. Even the ballroom dancing lessons I was taking with my wife, while challenging, were essentially drawing on a similar set of skills. While I certainly experience moments of frustration in attempting to learn new physical skills, I'm pretty comfortable with the process of learning them.

By contrast, carpentry is something I had NO frame of reference for. Every step felt totally unfamiliar. At times, I felt completely helpless, and believed I might remain that way forever.

Of course, there was a time I felt that way with the martial arts too. And I imagine I have some students who are reading this who are nodding, because they might feel that way right now.

And hey, that's pretty natural. If you're learning a new skill, you will likely feel like you suck at it...because you DO suck at it.

Seriously. I have friends who are woodworkers and carpenters, and I imagine some of them would have had some choice words about both my process and my final product. And those words would have been justified, because I made a lot of mistakes. But mistakes are part of the learning process. We make them. If you learn from them, their valuable.

Lesson Number Two: Coaches Are There For A Reason

I honestly don't know if I would have finished this without my wife. It certainly would have taken me longer.

See, I had all the tools necessary to diagnose what was wrong with my thinking at just about every step of the way. I had the words to explain how I was in the FEAR Loop, and what I needed to do to get out of it.

But it turns out that knowing how to fix a problem is not the same as being able to fix it. In this case, my coach was my wife, who gave me a sounding board and psychological boost to be able to get through the challenge.

Sometimes, knowing what to do isn't still need a coach to help you do it. Everyone needs a support system. Nothing wrong with it.

Lesson Number Three: The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good

My father used to share that line with me. Sometimes I misapplied it, but this time, it works.

Did I produce a masterwork? Hardly. Like I said, it's lopsided. It needs to be sanded (that will have to wait for warmer weather). And probably should be stained as well.

But it is a desk. It works. And dammit, I am proud of it, because I accomplished something that I didn't think I could.

If you're just starting in your martial arts will not be good at the art you have chosen. That's okay. Take some pride when you do things better, even if you are not doing things perfectly. Better is still better. Mastery takes a long time. Perfection never comes.

Lesson Number Four: There's a Lot to Learn From Trying Something New

This project gave me some insights into myself, but it also gave me some insights into how some of my students probably think or feel.

I know I've written about this before, but I think there is a great deal of value in trying to learn things that are outside of your comfort zone. Possibly far outside your comfort zone. Especially if you're a teacher...take some time to experience what it's like to be a beginner again.You might be surprised what you learn.


Maija said...

I'd also add a couple things that people outside any skill/practice do not consider.

1) Cheap tools are cheap for a reason. Things may 'look' the same, but the cheap one will perform worse, be harder to use and waste more time.
People who are unfamiliar with certain types of equipment - from paint brushes and rollers, to shop vacs and power tools, to heavy machinery, cannot comprehend this and go on visuals only as a way to compare products.

2) Most 'failures' are grounded in the erroneous assumption of how easy something 'should' be, or how much time it 'should' take. Where did this 'should' come from? It is complete fantasy.

One of the best lessons we can learn from physical projects is that you do it until it is right, fix all the things that do not work, and do not be afraid to re-do or start again if you have to.
You don't know what you don't know ... until you know.

Process comes with experience :-)

Jake said...

1) I find that the thesis that "you get what you pay for" is often true.

That said: is there a point where you, as a craftsman say "yes, that is the absolute, top-of-the-line tool for this project...and YOU (the journeyman/hobbyist) really don't need it."?

The best martial arts analogy I can come up with is the guy who shows up for his first day of training with professional lace up gloves imported from Thailand, his favorite fighters name brand rash-guard, and who knows what all else...when he could have worn a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt, and been just fine. It's not a perfect analogy, but I hope the question is clear.

2) That is gold. The "should" is total fantasy.

Maija said...

I think good design is good design, and poor design is poor design.

It is a pleasure to use things that are well designed and a pain in the ass to use things that are not.

What level of design is 'enough'? Well that is a complex question ...

One part that bothers me is that people say they 'hate' painting/carpentry whatever .... and it turns out that probably most of the reason why is that they were using badly functioning tools, and not knowing any better, think that the whole process is a drag.

Thing is you don't know how to compare better with worse when you have no concept of the range of possibilities, so how can you possibly choose?

Cost? Well, that might be a factor, but then you have to consider where the boundary of cheap meets lazy - I don't want to clean up my tools so I'm going to buy the cheapest crap so I don't feel bad about throwing it away - Kind of a thing.

Well made things are built to last, but nowadays this does not seem to be something people are interested in (why?), so many options of cheaper, throwaway type objects are more popular .... leading to worse performance.

Again, I want someone to have taken care in the design of an object, just like I am willing to take care of it - The two seem to go hand in hand in my mind, and perhaps there is my issue - cheap = not caring, from designer, to user, and that bothers me.

A question to you about your example of the guy with the fancy gloves and gear - Do you think he did not 'need' the quality because of his ability? Because you saw the purchase as a status show that made him seem obnoxious? Or because if he gave up they would have been a 'waste of money'?

'Need' is an interesting concept. What IS necessary?

To jump to another area - My work clothes are all covered in paint - duh - and I don't know how many times people are shocked when they notice the quality of what I am wearing - Silk, cashmere, $300 boots, Gortex and down jackets, wool socks etc ..."But you're getting them dirty, why would you ruin those clothes'?

Well obviously because I spend most of my waking hours in them, why would I not wear things that perform well?

Lastly, I do agree that using tools for hours on end, week in week out is different from a weekend project (and just as an FYI, a journeyman IS the highest level of professional and the opposite of a hobbyist), so wear and tear on the body is a factor for the professional in a different way than for the occasional user, but I do think the complete lack of understanding that most people have regarding design and functionality is driving down quality, and that really, really bothers me. We are becoming content with mediocrity .... and that sucks.

Jake said...

Thanks for the clarification on the journeyman term. Not sure why I mixed that up, but it's good to know.

RE: the guy with fancy gear--it's a bad example/comparison, but it was the only thing I could think of. Which probably just speaks to the question not directly transferring to the martial arts.

As for why it bothers me: my experience is that there's a group of people who tend to invest an enormous amount of money into something without discovering if they really like it. I have no problem with a passionate beginner buying good gear, but I've seen people shell out hundreds of dollars on gear before ever taking a class. Then they train for a month, realize it's not for them...and the gear is never used again. It seems wasteful to me.

Necessary is definitely a subjective concept. :-)

The part about people hating painting/carpentry/whatever because they tried with shitty tools is interesting. Doubly interesting to me, because honestly, that's what I did (at least in part), and my response was not "carpentry sucks", but "this saw sucks. Next time, avail yourself of the service that cuts this stuff for you."

Which is partly a way of saying that I'm on board with your idea that good tools are really important.

Becoming content with mediocrity definitely sucks.