Handling Failure, Setbacks and Not Feeling Good Enoughlewis.yoole
Failures and setbacks are the bane of any craftsperson’s existence. Couple that with the feeling that you’re not good enough, that your skills aren’t progressing as fast as you’d like, that niggling thought that you might never get there… It’s a wonder we ever put our hearts and souls into our work.
So how do we move through this? Of course, with time, experience and equipment things become easier, we gain confidence and failures may reduce. However, in this article I hope to lay the foundation for a few healthy mindsets we can adopt to make things easier, no matter your skill level.
Failure hurts and sucks. There are good and bad ways to handle it, but as a mental health professional I can assure you it’s not helpful to pretend it doesn’t hurt. Feel your feelings.
I have failures and setbacks almost every day in the shop. I’ve dropped finished knives and snapped tips. I restarted one knife from scratch five times and two of those I failed in the last 10% of the build. There is not a single knife in my entire catalogue that didn’t have at least one setback. It’s easy to become pessimistic or beat yourself up over failures, especially when you’re still early days and everything is new and difficult.
So how do we handle failures? I scoured the psychological research, and my own history of crushing failures, to narrow it down to a few key steps:
1. Feel the feelings. Emotional resilience is great and can be built up, but emotional repression will bite you in the long run.
2. Check yourself before knee-jerk reacting. Your safety is more important than the speed of recovering from the setback. Don’t rush to pick up a sharp knife or a hot bit of steel if you’re still shaky from the event.
3. Take some time out to de-stress. Have some food and water, it’s calming. Again, no one is going to perfectly recover from a big failure if they’re shaky, angry or stressed. The down time will help you make a better assessment and recovery.
4. Remember that failure happens and it doesn’t mean you suck. I fail at least once every day in the shop, sometimes epically. I still make nice things in the end and that’s what matters. Give yourself compassion. No one grows in a craft or in life by crushing their own potential with negative self talk.
5. If it’s fully stuffed up, let it go. No use flogging a dead horse, and your time is better spent applying the lessons you learned to a new one.
6. Ask yourself what you learned. What would you do different next time? E.g. I learned fine chef knife tips and concrete don’t blend well. Next time I’ll package my finished knife over carpet or rubber, not concrete.
7. Ask yourself what can you do now? Recover or change or improve.
8. Move through it and continue being awesome. In good time (with intention and compassion) your failure will stop having any weight and you can look back on it purely as a learning experience.
Not Feeling Good Enough
Not feeling good enough is always tough too. Perhaps your skills aren’t yet at the point where you can create what you see in your head. Perhaps there are other makers whose work is seemingly so far above yours that you get disappointed with where you’re at. Perhaps you are good, have a solid reputation and the admiration of other makers, but you feel like an imposter.
How do we grow, learn and create in a healthy way?
First, we need to determine whether the things you’re not satisfied with in your work are things you can change. Are you leaving scratches in because hand sanding sucks, rolling with a poor guard fit up because you don’t want to start again? If so, then you’ll either need to stop beating yourself up for things you are choosing to do, or make yourself responsible for doing it right. If it’s technical things like this, slowing down is good, and having constructive criticism from yourself and others is a real positive, as long as your reaction to it is healthy.
Slow down and get things good at the start. It’s much easier to start from a clean foundation than try to correct it later on. This goes for grinding, hand sanding, fit and finish etc. Speed comes with experience and machinery. What might take a beginner 30 hours might take me 15, and might take a pro 8.
When you do see that something isn’t right and you can do better, take the time to do it. E.g., remind yourself that while it might be a pain to slave over a hand finish for an extra 45 min, it will make you more satisfied in the long run. In the big scheme of things you’ll soon forget those extra 45 min, but when you look back on that knife in five years you’ll remember whether you were happy with the finish or not.
Given that, what if the room for improvement is because your skills or understanding isn’t there yet? The truth is, we’re always going to have things to improve. As technical skills progress, that room for improvement can transfer to other things like the subtle flow of your designs, artistic originality, speed of workflow. You might then get close to perfect on one type of knife and then dive into another type and start from scratch again.
Minor “negatives” and “faults” are always going to exist. They’re just a factor of being human. Sure you can make a technically “perfect” knife with clean finishing, no gap fits, good lines, but does it speak to you or others? Will it be as good as a knife you’ll make ten years later when your flair evolves? Perhaps not.
So if room for improvement is a constant, the only thing that can be adjusted is our reaction to it. Follow the tips for handling failure. Take your time, validate the feeling and then look at what to learn from it.
Work to get content with the fact that you’ll always have room for improvement. There are two ways to react to that. We could either be discouraged and beat ourselves up, or we could
say, sure I’m proud of that, and sure there are things I could improve. What are those things? How can I do them next time, or at least make some slight progress?
Lastly, know all of this can exist at the same time. You can be disappointed but still have a healthy reaction to it. You can have room for improvement but still produce exceptional work. No one grows by crushing their own potential with negative self talk