Monday, January 6, 2014

Do it badly, as fast as you can

When Robin Wood posted his top 20 spoons in the world, I noticed that Barn had engraved "I believe in replication" on one.  I appreciate this sentiment, especially as a newbie to spoon carving.  I am still imprinting forms on my brain and training my hands to do things, and that only comes with repeated attempts.  Gotta build up that muscle memory.
But I think Barn's declaration also points at another truth: that only with repeated attempts at something do we learn how to do something right.  The mistakes we make early on are crucial to our development, and the faster we get through those mistakes the faster we get to the really good stuff.  So don't be afraid to suck.  Just get on with sucking.

I find this often when teaching writing to my social studies students.  Many students feel their first draft needs to be perfect, immaculately conceived and born whole and fully formed like Athena emerging from the head of Zeus.  And when their first sentence does not come out right the first time, they feel like they have failed, and that writing is too hard.  Giving them permission to write a "shitty first draft" is crucial to their development.  Lots of low-stakes assignments gives them the space to make mistakes and learn the craft.
Along these lines, check out this anecdote from Fail Fast, Fail Often by Babineaux and Krumboltz.
The teacher divided the students into two groups. Those sitting on the left side of the studio were to be graded solely on the quantity of their work, while those on the right, solely on the quality. The instructor informed the students in the quantity group that a simple rule would be applied to evaluate their grades: those who produced fifty pounds of pots would get an A, those who produced forty pounds a B, and so on.
For the quality group, the instructor told the students that he would assign a course grade based on the single best piece produced over the duration of the course. So if a student created a first-rate pot on day one of the course and did nothing else for the term, he would still get an A.
When the end of the quarter arrived and it came to grading time, the instructor made an interesting discovery: the students who created the best work, as judged by technical and artistic sophistication, were the quantity group. While they were busy producing pot after pot, they were experimenting, becoming more adept at working with the clay, and learning from the mistakes on each progressive piece.
In contrast, the students in the quality group carefully planned out each pot and tried to produce refined, flawless work, and so they only worked on a few pieces over the length of the course. Because of their limited practice, they showed little improvement.


  1. You did to me a great honour by putting my humble blog in your Favorites Blog List, but i'm not worthy to stay next to such great carvers and artisans. Thank You!

    1. You are welcome! You do lovely work, from what I have seen so far. I look forward to reading more.

  2. Love this post. This is so true across most areas of life. Though - I think I'd adopt a different philosophy for sky diving! ;-) Thanks for sharing this. It is firing me up to stop thinking, analyzing, planning - and just DO!

    1. Hi Chuck,
      Hah! Good point about skydiving.
      And it probably extends to learning the right knife grasps, how to get your leg out of the way of your axe swing, etc...