Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Developing Skill

image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/nicmcphee/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

(This post was originally published on the now-defunct  "Make & Meaning" blog.)

When I think of the word craftsmanship, it evokes thoughtfulness, confidence, a commitment to doing things well, and skill.  Of those things, the only one that you definitely can't have out of the gate is skill.  No one is born an expert on a given craft or trade.  Even when you have years of doing something under your belt, there is still usually more to learn and explore.  

For me, skill comes with:
· Time
· Practice
· Experimenting
· Learning
· Allowing yourself to make mistakes

Even though these are interconnected ideas, each has its own value ...

image attribution: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fdecomite/ / CC BY 2.0


You aren't going to become skilled overnight.  Allow yourself time to acquire the knowledge you need to do something well.  I'm super-impatient, but I've learned that if I ignore the voice in my head that keeps repeating, "Have you figured it out yet? How about now?  Really, what's taking so long?" and I just float along the path where ever it may lead, that I eventually have that moment where I can say, "Yes!  Now I can do it!"

I'm making myself sound a lot more Zen than I am, what with my "paths" and "floating" and everything.  The reality for me is that when I'm learning a skill, particularly a difficult one, I will work on it in spurts ... usually because I've gotten so cross-eyed with frustration that I just can't take anymore. With all the starting and stopping, giving myself time to learn is key.

Don't set an artificial time limit for yourself.  It's quite possible that you might never run out of new things to learn.  Your timeline might be life-long.  Just think about embroidery for example.  Not only are there hundreds of stitches you could master, but there are cultural motifs and techniques to explore, a mind-boggling array of tools and materials to use, and the journey to find your own unique style.


There are two wonderful aspects to practice.  

First, practice is a repetition that helps you incorporate a movement or ability into yourself; make it a part of you.  Athletes, actors, dancers, musicians ... all of these skilled people practice.  A lot.  Why not give yourself the time to practice your craft.  Give yourself projects that aren't about making something, but purely about practicing.

Sometimes, in between crochet projects, I'll just grab a skein of yarn and a hook and I'll just make a big block of single crochet.  Or a circle.  Or whatever.  I don't have any project in mind.  I'm not testing things out or experimenting.  I'm just enjoying the process of holding my crochet hook and making little loops.  I'm creating a sense-memory of what crocheting feels like.

The second wonderful aspect of practice is that when you're practicing, it's not "for real" so there isn't the pressure of perfection.  Let's say you've decided to learn wood carving.  If you decide your first piece is going to be a figurine of your cat and it turns out to look more like a hedgehog-horse hybrid, it could be very discouraging because you failed to do what you set out to do.  

But if you made that same other-worldly, animal-monster when you were "just practicing" you might see that you've done a great job using your V-Gouge to create a wonderful spiny body.  That's the beauty of practicing.  When you don't expect specific results, you're open trying new things and to seeing the good parts of what you created.


As a process-focused crafter, I'm all about the details.  At each step of the project, I look at my technique and think to myself, "Is there another way to do this?"  I'm not even looking for a *better* way, necessarily.  I'm just exploring the width, breadth, and limits of my chosen craft.  I like to call this experimenting.

When I was learning to do the foundation single crochet (fsc), I found some conflicting instructions on how to start the stitch.  I decided I was going to figure out what I thought looked best.  I made a series of fsc rows starting off in every different way I could think of.  I ended up with eight samples.  I examined each of the samples and determined which one looked most like a normal row of chains and single crochet.

The awesome thing about this experiment is that I now have a detailed understanding of fsc.  I also have photos to reference if I decide to do something different with fsc where the starting stitch should have a different look.  In this instance, experimenting greatly increased my knowledge of crochet and definitely added to my skill.


My first instinct is to try and figure everything out myself.  But that's not always the best or easiest way to learn something.  It's silly to use your energy and time mastering a skill on your own when you can more easily learn from someone else who has already blazed that path.  Especially at the beginning of your skill journey, it's good to have help when you're learning.

The ability to learn a new craft has taken on epic proportions with the introduction of the internet.  Before, you were limited to books and the occasional face-to-face teacher.  Now you are a quick internet search away from a sea of blogs, tutorials, videos, and e-books on almost any skill imaginable.  Not only that, but you can probably even find someone you can email directly to ask for help if you can't find the exact information you're looking for.  Take advantage of all the resources at your disposal!

Allowing Yourself To Make Mistakes

I recently saw a job posting where the company said, "We like mistakes, and hope that you've made some big ones."  At first, I thought it was just more of the cheesy baloney you find in most job postings.  But the more I thought about it, the cooler I thought that was.  They want you to be doing big things, always be learning, and unafraid of messing up the first (or second, or third ... ) time you try something.  They understand that by taking risks, you're going to learn a whole lot more than if you just stick to what you already know.  And, sometimes, your risks are going to faceplant.

Do you know what's funny?  Sometimes when I do something the first time and it works, I'm actually skeptical.  I'll do that thing a couple other times a different way, just so I'll fail and mess it up.  Sometimes that the only way I trust that I really, truly figured something out.  It's my own version of the Winston Churchill quote about Americans, "You can always count on Americans Alice to do the right thing – after she’s tried everything else."

I get lots of emails from people asking advice about sewing and crochet projects.  They aren't sure what kind of thread would work best, or which crochet stitch would look right.  My answer always includes encouragement to try it out all the options and see what works.  It's important to remember not to take failures personally.  They are just a learning experience.  And, sometimes, your failures will actually turn out to be successes of a completely different kind.

How do YOU develop skill?

I'm sure I've left out some great tips for developing skill.  How do you approach becoming good at a new craft?  Do you have any advice for those just starting out?
2 Comments leave a comment

I've learned a lot by challenging myself to try something new, whether it's a technique, pattern or even an original design. And the project doesn't need to be a large one either. It's also important to keep some sort of reference to your first attempts (actual examples or photographs) so that you can revisit them at a later date. You may not think that you've improved but when you compare current work with these earlier attempts you'll see just how far you've come. :-)
2/25/2014 10:00 PM
futuregirl replied ...
Lemon Tree Tami ... Keeping examples of your first attempts is a great idea! You're right that sometimes you don't see how far you've come. Thanks for taking the time to comment. :)
3/1/2014 1:09 AM


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