just last week i questioned the strict preference for wood used in building longboards. I thought I could cheat the system and make a board core out of cheaper, more readily available lumber. So, I set out to the hardware store, with hopes held high and credit card at the ready. I came out with an expanse of spruce, a plane and some chisels. Tools I’ve never used before, but how hard could it be?
Days later I was left with a badly mangled piece of spruce, shavings covering most of the basement, a powerful ache in the arms and nostrils packed full of sawdust. So I did the only thing I could do. Under the cover of darkness, I disposed of the abortive project and quickly set into motion an alternate solution involving Baltic birch and marine epoxy.
I guess I got the idea that I could succeed from browsing all the submissions to Makezine.com’s blog, a mecca for DIY enthusiasts. Seeing all the awesome projects is enough to get lured into the notion that if you try to build something, one of the outcomes will be the thing that you are attempting to build. I guess the fractal sculptures made from water bottles, the carbon fiber bike frames or the table made exclusively with hand tools must have lulled me into a false state of optimism.
I mean, sure I’ve built stuff that’s worked. I’ve soldered circuits, made furniture, pressed longboards, put together a bike or two. Some of the stuff, I’ll admit, I was even proud of. I’m not trying to brag or show off my DIY prowess; I’m trying to call your attention to the stuff I made that didn’t work — which is to say the great majority of it.
Screwing up and dealing with it is the number one skill I’ve learned over the years. I know you’re reading this thinking that you’ve dealt with failure before, and maybe you have, but I know that I didn’t really experience failure until I started making things.
I’ve flunked more tests than I care to admit to, but it doesn’t really bother me. Academia is hopelessly mired in the cult of optimism. “Things will turn out okay if you try your best!” they proclaim at the slightest hint of realism. Tests can be re-taken, deadlines can be extended, extra work can be assigned to make up for sub-par results. Any sort of buffer to prevent you from feeling like you’re not good enough, like you don’t possess the necessary skills for success.
The kind of failure you deal with in DIY projects is different. There’s no one to say that you’ll do better next time, no one to point out where exactly you went wrong. The fact that the project is often an original idea makes the whole affair deeply personal. The only person preventing you from realizing your goals is, well, you. It’s why people give up after a failed birdhouse or an Adirondack chair that looks like Dali’s fever dream.
Making things, for those of you less inclined, can often be all consuming. It usually involves weeks spent in the basement or shed, away from all human contact, covered in paint chips and breathing in dust that’ll probably make itself heard years later — in the form of lung cancer. You’ll notice the doodles in the margins of our notebooks, on scraps of paper, the endless text files and bookmarks on our computers. It gets to the point of obsession. You’d think that with all the hard work and planning the expected outcome would be success. But then you’d be dead wrong.
Failure is a natural part of the process. In fact, it’s both the most crucial part and the default outcome. Failure is the part of the project where you have to step back and re-evaluate, where you have to take stock of the situation. It’s often the place where you learn something new, something that you’ll be able to use later on.
Do I regret the hours of my life I’ll never get back? No. I walk away from projects knowing more than when I started. It’s why I don’t regret the countless other projects in my basement — the half-built rockets, the burnt circuits, the glued together parts who’s origin I’m wholly uncertain of. Of course, the next project will be different, right?