My Island of Misfit Toys

September 22, 2023

More reflections while carving. This time, I reflect upon the lessons I learn from failing.

Not all my carvings work out. In fact, the more I stretch the limits of my skills to try new designs and new carving techniques, the more often I fail. This used to trouble me. But now I am starting to embrace it.

I've even started saving my failures. I now have quite a collection of them. I call them my Island of Misfit Toys.

Attempted carvings can earn their way into this growing collection in a number of ways. Sometimes, I try a new design and it turns out to be just ugly. Somethimes the design is good but my skills as a woodcarver are not yet developed well enough to turn the design into an attractive end-product. Sometimes, too, I mis-reaad the wood that I have started to carve and discover--only after I am deep into the project--some inherent flaws, knots, or cracks in the wood that render my efforts at carving useless in that instance.

I used to throw those mistakes away. Now I keep them.

Periodically, when I am looking for inspiration, I go over to my collection of discards and ask myself important questions. What was my original inspiration when I started that project? What went wrong? How might I try something similar but different to have a better outcome next time? Does this scrap represent a flaw in my design thinking or in my carving skills or in my understanding of wood in its natural shape? What can I do differently next time? What have I learned about myself, about my eye for design, or about my skills as a carver, since I tried that one?

I am learning (albeit slowly) that my failures are only failures if I see them that way. By re-framing how I think of them, I can see them not as failures, but as lessons to be learned. And that sustains me through dry spells of creativity and lag-times before I carve the next spoon that I can be really proud of.

I once thought that success was linear. It is not. It's more of a twisty, curvy, hilly mountain road filled with potholes. Success, therefore, is a slower drive, but the scenery along the way is more interesting than if it were a highway.

Four years ago, I carved a set of tasting spoons that I am still proud of to this day. They're featured on the Home Page of my carving site:

But, try as I might, I have not been able to successfully carve again the spirals that I made for that set. My Island of Misfit Toys now has four attempts at spiraled handles that did not pass muster. And I still don't know why. Someday I will discover how to replicate my earlier success.

The whole experience reminds me of the comment that Steve Blank makes so often, and so effectively, about startups. His definition of a startup includes the elements of "being in search of... a repeatable... business model." I am in search of a repeatable carving model.

Actually, Steve's full defintion of a startup includes being "in search of a repeatble, profitable, scalable business model. I'm not ready for those last two yet.

As I continue to reflect upon the life lessons being taught me by this woodcarving hobby, I am reminded over-and-over again of Steve Blank's dictum. As a craftsman, I'm still a startup. I am still in search of how to create "repeatable" spoon patterns. The learning... and dare I say it, the fun, is in the search.