Making things, making mistakes, and perfection

Having now spent most of a lifetime making things, I reflect that I’ve been lucky to do so. In our culture we tend to distinguish people who “work with their hands” from people who “work with their brains”. Our education system has enshrined this for hundreds of years, and even now many people are fond of the idea that some children are “academic” and should go to university and study traditional subjects, and others are less so and should follow more vocational courses.

Even teachers (who should know better) tend to believe in the notion that because some people are more intelligent than others, the goal of education is to “realise the potential” of the student. There’s a sort of unspoken assumption here that there is an upper limit to what each person can achieve, and once we know how intelligent they are we can teach them in such a way as to allow them to reach that limit. I find this a dispiriting and wrong-headed doctrine. For a start, since we can’t know what the upper limits (if there are any) might be, education should be open-ended. Second, ”intelligence” is a much-abused concept, because in spite of the fact that we don’t know what it is, we often imply that it is genetically determined. We describe some people as “being good at” Maths or Music or Art, as though being good at something is the mysterious but inevitable consequence of having the appropriate genetic makeup. We also use the word “talent” to describe the mysterious nature of this genetically-determined ability.

But consider this – what would it mean for a newborn baby to be “gifted” at Maths? It doesn’t make any sense, does it? If a child, whatever their genetic inheritance might be, is born into a family who have some skills in the subject, if they have a good Maths teacher at school, they may well become rather good at it (and the converse is true, of course). In the past, professions tended to run in families, with sons – usually sons, but sometimes daughters – following in their father’s footsteps. In music I think of the Bach family, where practically all the children through several generations became professional musicians. If musical ability was due to the throwing the random dice of genetic variation, this would not have happened. What we know did happen (well-documented for J.S.Bach and his sons) was that the children received expert and thorough tuition in music from an early age. Old JSB took no prisoners – they weren’t allowed to fail, in spite of their inevitably various genetic constitutions.

Making music involves interacting with the physical world in very precise ways, controlling one’s voice or fingers to produce sounds. But because music is more than just a sequence of sounds, performers use their brains in other complex ways in order to communicate with their audiences. They use their brains as well as their hands.

Making a physical object like a musical instrument is obviously a task which requires good skills in manipulating tools and materials. But these skills are not just hand skills, they involve problem-solving, aesthetic judgements, understanding of what the goals are and how to achieve them. Again, this is a case of brain and hands working in a complex interaction.

One could make the same case for various sports, as well. There is something natural and challenging in these interactions with the physical world which is not always valued in education. Forty-five years ago my (grammar) school had a woodwork shop and a metalwork shop (including a forge), rooms for cookery and needlework – all for both boys and girls. I fear that has all disappeared.


Making mistakes

Interacting with the physical world in these complex ways is fraught with danger. A momentary lapse of concentration, a slip of the finger, a slight misjudgement about distance or timing, and we can find ourselves in a situation which I like to call “error recovery”.

To give an example from lutemaking, people often say, as they look at the intricate carving of a lute rose, “that must be really difficult, and I guess if you make a mistake, – one slip of the knife is all it takes – you have to start all over again!” Not true. Mistakes involving slipping knives are rare, but because spruce is rather prone to drying out and splitting, small pieces where the carving crosses the grain sometimes detach themselves and have to be glued back in. Such pieces are often extremely small, and involve careful manipulation and very small amounts of glue – microsurgery. Almost anything is recoverable.

Which brings me to the notion of “perfectionism”. We want everything we do to be perfect, but what does that mean? Not only does perfection not exist, it is a mistake to even aim for it. A real perfectionist would be someone who never finishes a task because the work they have done is not good enough. This is a terrible trap to fall into. What is required is to do work which is “good enough” in a reasonable time frame, to be tolerant of mistakes, and good at error recovery . “Good enough” can be very good indeed, of course, so much so that some might describe it as perfect. But they’d be making a big mistake.


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