Without failure there is no learning

I’m not sure who originally said “without failure there is no learning.”  Google that phrase and you’ll see blog entries both embracing and critiquing that idea. Clearly one function of that saying is to console who has just suffered (or is afraid to soon suffer) failure. At least, that’s how I’m using that mantra at the moment.

I just trashed my third attempt at a “slim” acrylic pen, a gift for a friend. Some people like their pens slender, and in this particular design you end up turning the material down to barely more than a millimeter thick. If there are any stresses in the material, then taking it down that thin tends to release them, causing buckling or bubbling. And if the material is not glued perfectly to the brass tube in the center, it doesn’t take much for a slight imperfection to catch the blade of the chisel and tear a whole chunk of material right off the tube. In theory, I could have 1) drilled more carefully, and 2) glued more carefully, and 3) taken a very fine cut at the end.  Well, I tried #2 and #3, and I’m not sure about #1.  The material simply deformed, and I have no idea whether the glue could have been strong enough to hold it.

OK, so what is the learning: don’t try to turn down thin pens out of acrylic? Clearly it’s theoretically possible (I’ve actually succeeded once or twice at this). If it was really important to me to continue to produce thin acrylic pens, I’d figure out a better way to do it.  (I really do suspect that a cleaner bore with the drill might have strengthened the glue adhesion…).

Now that I’ve got that venting off my chest…

I’ve written before about how failure – or more precisely, experiencing first-hand the consequences of mistakes – does seem to be a better teacher than hours of reading books. I’m starting to wonder, though, what the counter-point is to the “aversive” learning of failure?  For example, I’ve learned (the hard way) what happens when I run too-thin wood through a planer with dull knives (hint – you don’t want to be standing in the line of fire). A few stitches in my finger tip reminded me to be aware of where all 10 digits are when working around an exposed router bit. These are actions I’m highly unlikely to perform again.

Somehow, the sweet feeling of success doesn’t quite “teach” the same way. When I pop a nicely shaped bowl or pen off the lathe, I’m pretty sure I’m not chiseling a “do this again next time” lesson into my brain. I’m satisfied, certainly, but more likely what I want to do is push the boundaries of what I’ve just done. Can I make a variation? What if I try…  and I’m off again, daring failure to teach me another lesson.

Success is certainly motivating.  My own experience (and there’s a nice line of psychological research supporting this) is that after a series of frustrations, I may dial down the challenge a bit just to experience a confidence-boosting success again. And of course, there is the Zen like idea of pursuing an activity for its own enjoyment (the feel of wet wood slicing away under a gouge is so silky smooth…), not worrying about “outcome.”  Hmmm…  yes and no.  I need to ponder that more.

Then, of course, we have the perversity of school failure. We let kids fail all the time, without paying attention to whether they’re optimally challenged, what might support their successes, etc. In some cases we require failure in classrooms; without somebody failing a teacher may be accused of being too “lenient”, whatever that means. In school failure is often not teaching any lesson other than reinforcing that somebody is innately inept.

So, I may attempt a fourth slender pen, being careful each step of the way to construct it as carefully as possible. Or, I may decide to step back and try an easier variation (using wood instead of acrylic – it tends to bond better to the tube – or trying a design with a little more “meat” on it).

That’s it for tonight. I have more thoughts brewing I want to blog about soon, but they’re not quite ready to see the light of day.


Two steps forward, one back

I’ve been making steady progress on the table, albeit with a few setbacks. For example, I’m now on my third set of brackets, and I’m not even 100% sure these are right. The first set, as I’d written about previously, were too narrow, destroying the optical illusion of a continuous piece of wood extending through to the rails. The second set I measured and cut, only to realize after that – D’oh! – the grain was running the wrong way! The grain needs to run horizontally (again, for the sense of continuous wood). A 90-degree turn in the grain breaks the illusion. Even with stain, it would be noticeable. Oh well. This third set is looking promising. Now I just have to hope I can fit them to the appropriate pieces with no gaps. Stay tuned.

The main rails are just about done, too. I just glued in some faux tenons to the leg uprights tonight, and tomorrow I’ll detail them and stain them. At that point (and after confirming the fit of the brackets) I can join the two halves of the pedestle together and move it upstairs into my dining room. The first third of the project will be done!

Not much else to write about – just the usual trials and errors. I’ve uploaded a couple of photos of the “wrong way” to glue up two planks and the “right way.” The “wrong way” involved sandwiching them together and driving the front wheel of my car on top of them for pressure, letting them sit over night. It seemed like a really good idea at the time! It might have worked if I’d paid a little more attention to the cupping of the boards. As it turned out, the center got plenty of pressure, but the edges had nasty gaps – the pressure just wasn’t distributed well to the edges of the boards. So the “right way” was to clamp them up with several clamps, distributing the pressure more evenly. Worked like a champ.

I’m also starting to push the envelope in my pen turning (see picture on this blog entry). I want to start moving into more fancy, artistic sculpting, and that’s a whole new challenge. This first effort isn’t bad (again, don’t look at the beads too closely or you’ll see the asymmetries). Production-wise, it takes 3-4 times longer than a standard pen, because of the pain-staking work around the details. As I get better and more confident I’m sure that time ratio will shrink. But one false move with the skew chisel around those beads and wham! you’ve got a gouge tearing down the pen. I came close.

I’m thinking ahead to this craft show at work. I’m wondering what would happen if at the booth I had some modeling clay and some standard Bic plastic cylinder pens. I’m thinking of having folks (if they wish) mold their own pens to the curves and thickness that feels good in their own hand, and then I’ll turn one from their mold. Could be fun and “interactive”, or a nightmare of trying to match curves. I’ll have to try a few on my own first. 🙂

The down side to my steady progress is that I’m not getting out to exercise enough. Sure, the evenings are pretty toasty nowadays anyway, but I’m starting to miss my evening runs and rides. Balance, balance…

Nothing profound tonight – just an update. Till later!


Slow, steady progress on the dining table. Glued up some more thick stock (the last of it, I think, for now), and laid out the template for the feet. After work tomorrow I’ll have an excuse to go by my favorite place to spend money and pick up a longer, high quality template routing bit.

For tonight’s pen turning I used a scrap of Rosewood I picked up at the lumber shop. Rosewood comes in many varieties, and I don’t know which one this is. It’s rare and on most “endangered” lists of wood, but this was a scrap offcut they were selling out of a bin, so I didn’t feel like I was driving demand by re-using what was otherwise scrap. Gosh it’s beautiful, though! I usually finish my pens with “friction polish”, a combination of shellac and hard wax. For wood with interesting grain I’ll start with a swipe of boiled linseed oil, and rub it down to dry pretty quickly. The top pen used BLO as an undercoat, the bottom didn’t. You might not see the difference well in that photo, but the top pen’s darker lines are a lot deeper – BLO essentially turns up the contrast on the grain. I generally don’t use it on the bloodwood pens as I don’t see the same gain (bloodwood has a pretty smooth, uniform grain), but I may try the contrast experiment on bloodwood next time I do a pair.

OK, more ruminations on my unquiet little mind… I read the classic work “Flow: the psychology of optimal experience” by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi a few years back in graduate school. It fits with a lot of other texts – both in literature and psychology – that try to characterize that “zone” one gets in when activity is joyful and natural. When I practiced Aikido we trained to be in that “flow” space under stress.

Where am I going with this… I’ve been playing with the differences between dwelling on whatever’s bothering me, “distracting” myself with activities, and being in “flow.” After my last blog my little conditioned self-hating voice (a term Cheri Huber uses) was giving me a hard time for “distracting” myself by turning pens when I was feeling bad. Shouldn’t I really be digging deep down to understand what was bothering me? Well, I have a pretty good sense of what was bothering me, and I didn’t feel like introspection was going to do much about it (“or,” the little voice is telling me now, “were you just chickening out from dealing with it?”) Argh! Welcome to my brain.

But then I get into a “flow” state and darn it, it feels good! I relax and feel like a functional human being. More importantly, ego and self-hate take a back seat. OK, as I write this I can see Cheri or any other half-intelligent person looking at me and saying “and the problem is… ?” Hmmm.. I felt bad, I did something healthy, and felt better. Different than hitting the bottle or doing something destructive.

Yet that voice nags. Is the best way to “solve” a problem, particularly an old tape that’s creaking through its reels yet again, to sit and think hard about it? That seems to often just spiral me down. Yet “the unexamined life is not worth living” rings through my mind, too. I do note that when I’m in a good space, the “problems” just don’t look that imporant any more. So maybe it’s not that I’m “ignoring” the issues, it’s just that they aren’t as powerful or bad as they seem when I’m feeling like a fully functioning human being. And I do get to still work on these issues, but not on their schedule! I can reflect on them when I’ve got the wherewithall to have some perspective.

Of course, the meditation folks would say sit and come back to the breath. Not “focus” on the problem that’s bugging me, but just sit quietly and observe the drama unfolding within. That seems more “proper” somehow, but my impulse of late hasn’t been to sit quietly, it’s been to “putter” in the shop.

Enough rambling for now… I’m sure this will come up again, as my time in the wood shop is also time to get thinking (or non-thinking) done.