Mastering a Craft

by Gordon Long (adapted from The Wooden Post, vol 11, June 2018).

When I started thinking about writing an article for this newsletter, I had so many ideas to explore, but the topic that seemed to have the most potential to make a difference for the community was the frame of mind that we bring to our work.

I have been working with wood and metal since I took my first shop classes in junior high school. I was always fascinated by the process of turning a raw piece of material into a desired object. I have had the pleasure of learning from some excellent teachers and co-workers, and have applied that learning for about 40 years. Currently I am working for the Physics Department at UC Berkeley in their research and prototype shop, making complicated components for the research community. While my job is extremely challenging, it is that challenge that makes it fun for me. Prior to working in the Physics Department, I ran the student machine shop for 14 years in the Mechanical Engineering Department at Cal.

Being a teacher has been tremendously beneficial to deepening my knowledge of my craft. Students would always marvel at my abilities and ask me how I learned to do my work. The simple answer is to practice for many years. But there is a deeper level that makes practice pay off even more. I believe that attitude is a prime factor in achieving mastery of any given endeavor.

I had the good fortune of being raised by a mom who was a constant support, giving me the confidence to achieve my goals. Mom would tell me and my brother, “I didn’t raise any dummies. You boys can do anything you want, you just have to want to do it.” I believe in myself because she believed in me. Some people are not as fortunate to have had such a supportive parent.

I have worked with people who have crippling attitudes about themselves ideas that must have been planted at a young and impressionable age. When we repeat those messages over and over, they become habits that are hard to break unless we can tell a different story to change what we’re thinking. I have successfully pulled students out of these types of behaviors by being patient and not believing what they have told me about themselves, bringing their attention to the task at hand instead of how they perceive themselves. What makes a huge difference is where you put your focus. I think it was Henry Ford that said, “whether you say you can or you say you can’t, either way you’re right.”

There is a concept called “negative target fixation” that was found to be the primary factor in fatal aircraft crashes. Pilots who had all the skill to correct their planes when something went wrong crashed because they focused on the problem instead of the solution. Every time we see something going off course is a chance to bring our focus back to our desired outcome.

Another pitfall can be focusing on the people watching us and being concerned with being judged. Imagine if we had to learn to walk as adults. Most of us might give up after someone saw us fall over. If we can be willing to make mistakes while we practice and then practice some more, we can then start to build the skills to do what we want. It does take many hours of practice to achieve mastery. Some people think you have to be gifted, like the famed musician Mozart. Well, Mozart did start composing at a young age but, I’m pretty sure his music from his early years is not what made him famous. That’s just when he started practicing.

After spending the hours to master a craft, you can get to a place where the work comes easier if you can keep your mind in a good place. I had the good fortune of seeing Makoto Imai, a Japanese temple builder who has been a huge influence on the Bay Area Japanese woodworking community, doing a demonstration on the Berkeley campus. The thing he said that stuck with me was, “I’m nothing special. I just keep my tools sharp and enjoy my work. When I’m working, I’m not even there, I’m just watching the work happen.”

Being in a place where your ego isn’t the primary factor in your actions will result in your energy and focus being more productive. The other thing he said that day that I will always remember is that your tools are like your family. If you have 100 kids, that’s going to make your life a struggle. Just get the tools you need to do your work and take care of them. I think it’s more important to learn how to get results out of basic tools before spending money on expensive tools. At the last Kezurou-kai event in West Oakland, I made a point of competing with an old plane blade that I bought as a rusty mess on eBay for $9.00 and fit into block that I bought on sale for $25.00 at the old Japan Woodworker store in Alameda.

Gordon Long

Gordon Long

Another important point is to spend time with people who are already achieving what you want to achieve. Learn by watching them and asking good questions. Don’t spend too much time talking about limitations with people who don’t have the skills for which you are aiming.

Finally, the most important thing is to enjoy what you are doing and inspire others. Teaching is an excellent way to do this and refine your skills. To effectively teach, you have to know what you are doing. However, when you pay attention to your students, you will also discover what you don’t know, and you can learn more. Your students can be your teachers also.