Educating the Fool

by Philip Morley

For some reason, I emerged from childhood (and I think others did too) thinking that if you don’t feel like an expert at something then you probably shouldn’t do it. You should feel competent in your profession. You should feel. . . well. . .  like an expert. Yet, I know I still have my moments of thinking. . . .Am I really good at this?? I have come to learn that many people feel this way in many different professions. I am always surprised how many people feel like they are not yet quite grown up and simply playing at it. (This is where you agree with me wholeheartedly!)  But in furniture making, where the product of your work is very visible, standards of perfection can be REALLY concrete. Maybe that is why many furniture makers have (at least) a touch of perfectionism in them. But this mind set and perfectionism in general can be crippling if you are not careful. You may fail to try new things then you often fail to move forward. I never feel like I achieve the perfection that I am seeking. Some days, I berate myself, question myself and consider throwing in the towel. . . . . and beating my creation into small imperfect pieces. But then I realize that this is the only thing I am good at and I have to move forward. So, most of the time, I try to use it as a challenge. . . . a goal I know I can never quite attain but one that keeps me moving forward none-the-less.
Because, as we all have been told, mistakes teach us. But if mistakes make such great teachers, why do we dread them so much? I suspect it is because mistakes do not always seem like the kind encouraging teachers that the statement implies but rather harsh teachers that rely primarily on shaming to get their message across. 🙂
Below is just one example. 🙂 I was about seventeen when I made this. Although I didn’t know it at the time, this piece taught me a big lesson in wood movement among other things. 🙂 For some, this probably sticks out to you straight away. But if not, take a look at the door panel. There is a huge gap between the panel and the frame. I assure you that was not by design and was not there when the piece was originally built. This piece taught me in a way that I will always remember, that I need to be conscious of wood movement and make sure not to build with wet wood!


Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Experience is a dear teacher but fools will learn from no other.” Yep! I theoretically knew about wood movement, but this piece REALLY convinced me. Beyond wood movement, I think that I also learned to pay more attention to what my mentors said. Surprisingly enough, when I was younger I was sure that I knew better.. . . Okay sometimes, I still do. 🙂 Having never had a problem with wood movement, I assumed I never would.:) Of course, while mistakes are inevitable, some (many even many) can avoided by simply listening to the advice of those who have been there before. More on mentors later. 🙂

The other benefit of mistakes is that you learn how to fix them. Yes, some mistakes are WAY too big to fix. There have been several heartbreaking pieces that ended up feeding a fire. There is fine line between deciding when to throw in the towel or try to move forward. Most of the time, however, the mistake can be fixed. The cool thing about furniture making is that in fixing in the mistakes, you learn new techniques and brainstorm new ideas that can applied in ANY situation not just trying to correct a problem. Sometimes, you have to go back a step or two but you learn from it and move on. In this pursuit of perfection mistakes are inevitable. I have learned you can either allow the mistakes to stop you cold or understand that mistakes will be made and you will learn from them. A friend once told me that if you feel totally comfortable in your profession then you are probably doing the wrong thing. As I take risks, make mistakes, and try to move forward, I take comfort in this conclusion. I may be really uncomfortable at times as a furniture maker, but I am definitely in the right profession. 😛