Sunday, February 12, 2012

Perseverance versus Productivity

This past week, I managed to push through and publish my website. It was a triumph of sorts, since I had to work my way through understanding enough of Dreamweaver, Fireworks, and Photoshop, to make that happen. I'm sure the site needs work, and I'm sure I'll need to revise it some more as time goes on. But I've got a decent handle on the basics, I think, and hopefully it will get better from here. I really wanted to bitch about how hard it was to somebody, but having just written about the hassles of learning something new, I really felt like I was being childish. It's life. We have to learn and grow and evolve. And that involves learning new things.  

I got a magazine in the mail this week, and the cover article was all about perseverance and grit, and how this was an essential element for most big success stories. The argument (which I agree with) is that intelligence or skill or any other given advantage will give an individual a head start in whatever regard, but that anyone who was determined enough to climb can still get past that level if they work hard enough. Malcolm Gladwell mentions a rule in his book Outliers, that it takes basically 10,000 hours (around 10 years) of concentrated effort and practice to really become an expert at anything. It takes grit to get to that point, regardless of your starting point on the destination. And those hours of practice, even if it's doing something you enjoy, won't necessarily be enjoyable. 

As a counterpoint, I was reading an article this week about a hand-held CNC machine that an MIT student had developed, to get around his own lack of skill in carving. The notion of the thing rubs me the wrong way, because I believe that the process of learning to do skilled work is very important: In part, because it helps to develop that grit that I was just talking about. But the truth is that the person who came up with the thing had to be pretty skilled to make one in the first place, no matter how I try to turn my nose up at his work. And getting into and surviving MIT takes a lot of grit.

I once heard Brian Boggs describe the motivation behind good jigs and fixtures in his shop. The phrase he used was that jigs saved time, in the absence of skill. He had developed a body of skill over 25 years of building chairs. His employees hadn't, but he still needed them to help him produce good chairs. To do that, they needed good jigs to use. So I can understand how a hand held CNC tool could be as useful in an industrial setting as some jigs are in the shop. But it still bothers me. And I think I’ve finally put my finger on why. 

I understand that there are times when it’s more important to complete a project than it is to do it in a way that makes me feel like I accomplished something. Sometimes it’s more important to keep the doors open than to make me feel like I’m a better woodworker than I am. There are some projects that would still be in the shop right now if my perfectionist tendencies were given free rein, and I have to make allowances for that: Not every project can be done to my perfectionist's standards, and on time. And if any of you tell my wife that I admitted this in a public forum, I'll have you shot. 

I still try to keep the fight alive. I know that I won’t learn if the work isn’t a challenge. And I know that I really want to keep learning. So, I continue to look for projects that challenge me and make me learn. I think that automated tools like the one I’ve been talking about would keep me from learning, and growing, and evolving... even if there are times when it might come in handy.

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