“We need not more disciples but more apprentices.”
– Bill Coperthwaite
Every year, as the summer storms into colorful autumn, I take a look towards closing up my property for a harsh Michigan winter. For inspiration to get me through my least favorite time of the year, I reread the writings of Bill Coperthwaite. Mr. Coperthwaite was a pioneer in the back to the land movement of the 1970s. He was a writer, a poet, a craftsman, and a muse for many who sought the simplicity gained through hard work, thought, and the pursuit of that which is simpler than what you had before.
When reading the words of this inspirational man, I often find new passages that have great meaning for me. Life is always changing and, just as you can never set foot in the same river twice, each time I read something I internalize it differently because I am a different person than the last time I read it. This year, while reading the book “A Handmade Life: The Search for Simplicity,” I was struck by the simple sentence written above. It occurred to me that this simple line, those eight profound words, have a deep meaning for the sublime craft of woodworking and for life in general.
I’m afraid that many have forgotten the simple joy of being a beginner. Our world is a world of 24 hour news cycles, constant social media updates, easy video production, and the expectation of consistent perfection. In short, it is very easy to have impossibly high expectations for ourselves and our work because we have become disciples to gurus we shall most likely never meet, gurus who can conveniently edit out their own mistakes or who can simply gloss over them with sound bites. We think we should be as good as they are and unfortunately often adopt their techniques, habits, or attitudes without truly understanding them. This is where I get turned off, the constant hero worship that is so prevalent in our society and our craft. Just because a certain person does something a certain way does not mean that their way is the right way. This applies to many areas of our shared experience and certainly not just the craft.
The mistake must be our most powerful guru. Just about anyone who says they aren’t screwing something up, on some level, daily, either isn’t paying close enough attention, doesn’t understand their error, or is simply lying to cover it up. Absolute perfection is impossible because we are all, theoretically at least, human. Making an error is normal human behavior. It is in making the mistake repeatedly that one begins to learn why the mistake is being made and, with proper reflection sometimes teaching, the person can learn how not to repeat the mistake.
The best artisans in the world are the ones who have made thousands and thousands of mistakes but have learned how not to make them time after time. They progress and they learn to make different and higher-level mistakes, mistakes that they see that guys who are still stuck on the easier mistakes may not see or understand because they aren’t there yet.
Achieving easy perfection does not make you a master. Learning from your mistakes and maintaining a humble and grateful attitude is how you progress. The sooner we realize that we are naught but apprentices in an overarching craft that we shall never conquer, the better we will be as a society.
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