Prelude to Perfection

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Most of us are haunted throughout our lives by the wide gap between what we feel we could do and the little we actually accomplish. “Man’s reach is wider than his grasp.” As children we embarked eagerly on cherished projects and when we failed from the lack of experience and skill were daunted and exasperated by our impotence. To feel within oneself the power to do a thing and then to make a hash of it!

Later, when our fingers had gained skill the problem posed itself in a different form. We might now have the knowledge and at least sufficient confidence to do a good job, but still there was something that eluded us, some secret vision of perfection to which, in spite of many efforts, we failed to attain. The trouble with perfection is that it looks so misleadingly simple, but the cost is high. We can spend quite a considerable part of our lives discovering just how high and that unless we are prepared to pay the price perfection will continue to elude us. Recently I came across a mathematician who, so that he might demonstrate some mathematical law to his class had made a wooden model which, in order to function, needed an upright board, grooved in zigzags set at certain angles, down which tiny balls cascaded to operate the model. It was not the main part of the model, merely the necessary prelude which made the demonstration possible, yet it had taken him, he said with a smile, three hundred hours to make. The wood was unpolished but so glossily smooth, with perfection in each incisive line along which the little balls capered, that it had a beauty all of its own. Obviously it had been a labour of love and infinite patience.

Usually it is our impatience that defeats us. There are so many other distractions tugging at us that it is difficult to devote ourselves unswervingly to one particular bit of creative work with the unhurried effort that a first-class job takes and we are content to give less than our best. The craftsman’s best needs something more than an acquired skill of fingers sufficiently well trained not to mar a job with rash, impatient movements. It needs besides an attitude of mind that can sustain a prolonged effort with enjoyment and when a man takes pleasure in his work for its own sake he has acquired the true craftsman spirit which makes the best work possible.

Even so, we have to accept our human limitations. They are different with every individual man, divergencies of talent, of temperament, of circumstances which must inevitably produce differences of achievement. The temptation is strong to say: “Ah, if I was that man, or had that gift, or that opportunity, I should do very differently.” Should we, I wonder? If, instead of sighing for the moon, we accept ourselves as we are, with our own gifts and potentialities, our own weaknesses and faults of temperament, and set ourselves to do the best creative work that lies inside of us in spite of them, we shall work with an awareness of ourselves that will be half the battle. The naturally impatient man has more patience to learn than his less impulsive brother, the man who yields so easily to discouragement has to make up his mind to grit his teeth and hand on and that “it’s dogged as does it.” We are all these things by turn and at times but in each of us the proportion is different. We are each, as it were, our raw material and by working creatively and setting ourselves to do good work we are shaping and making ourselves as well as the thing we do. In this way alone can we discover our hidden potentialities by learning to do the things which can give them release. It is their presence within us which gives us from childhood upwards that sense of power to do things which, given no outlet, may well prove illusory.

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Lack of confidence or an impossible ambition may both cause failure but if we work realistically, accepting ourselves as we are, confidence will come or vaulting ambition learn a moderation that leads to success. As the power of achievement grows, we shall find that we have it in us to do work stamped with our own distinctive character, because character develops inevitably with the things we do, and that we shall be making a contribution in itself unique to our surroundings.

The only fatal thing is to give up trying, to allow that sense of innate ability to become submerged, turning to a feeling of frustration and finally indifference. By so doing we shall cheat ourselves of some of the best things in life.

Once started on the good road to craftsmanship there is no knowing where a man will stop. One thing has an odd way of leading to another, interests and accomplishments grow and thrive by the way. To the end of our days we shall probably feel conscious of the things we might have done and did not, but in so far as we were willing to pay the price of achievement we shall have something to show for having lived.

— Charles H. Hayward, The Woodworker, April 1955 issue (paintings dug up by Jeff Burks)

Check out “The Woodworker: The Charles H. Hayward Years,” the first two volumes of writings from the English magazine while Hayward was editor.

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19 Responses to Prelude to Perfection

  1. Awesome blog post! Who was the artist that did the paintings?

  2. bearkatwood says:

    This is like a preview for a really good movie, you are giving away plot points, but I don’t care. I still want to watch the whole thing with a bucket of popcorn in my lap.

  3. Damn. This guy is inside my head, reading my thoughts before I even have time to think them. And he did it two years before my Dad was born.

  4. erikhinkston says:

    I sure am glad I bought these books, it’s going to save me a ton in printer ink.

  5. toolnut says:

    “…Usually it is our impatience that defeats us. …”
    Amen to to that.

    For clarification, are these past few posts included in the “Hayward Years” or are they some of his writings that did not make the cut? I remember you writing that you had to pick and choose.
    AND, in the new volumes, did you add pics to his articles like you’ve done these last posts? Thanks.

  6. The timing of this is almost too scary. No doubt I’ll have to buy the books once stateside, but that it is published simultaneously to a crisis in the professional work life… It might be coincidence. The timing is just a little too perfect. If not from a higher power of sorts, at least my inner deepest self has latched on to these last 3 posts for a reason. I guess I’d better listen closely.

  7. MattC says:

    I seem to suffer with this phenomena on a daily basis, my expectations of my work exceed my abilities. I’ll fret and focus on a gap in a dovetail or joint that’s not perfect. I find the absolute best cure is move forward. Work on the next phase, try to learn from the mistake and complete the project. I finished project builds confidence and lessens the significance of past mistakes.

  8. Thank you for publishing this. A helpful dose of guidance and reality.

  9. oltexasboy says:

    Now that I am an old man, I have discovered that there are a lot of things in life that will affect your expectations of yourself. I was 18 when I went to Vietnam(1969) and I acquired a lot of understanding of human nature and myself at the same time. I now, after having sacrificed myself to the alter of making a living as a heavy equipment mechanic, have discovered that there are some things as a wood worker that I will never accomplish. Fine furniture is just one of them. I will never produce a piece as superb as Paul Sellers but I will continue to try. I cannot give the undivided attention to detail, that is required all the time to make sure a joint is perfect. My arthritis requires it’s part of my daily regimen, and will as long as I live. I greatly admire the sacrifices to the art of C. Schwarz and others but I also realize that I will never attain the level of expertize that he and others have, but I also realize that I spent most of my bodies “capitol” on learning and perfecting my skill as a mechanic to provide for my family. So be not of faint heart, forge on toward
    the skill or level of craftsmanship you want. Jeff Miller said that if you don’t know where you are going there is little likelihood of you getting there. Your reach should always exceed your grasp,
    so keep reaching young men, you’ll be surprised what is within your grasp.

    • skilledno says:

      Thats quite the post there friend, seriously. The whole end of life and what’s achieved with it is weighing on my mind somewhat, posts like that help.

      The last Haywards paragraph above is also excellent.

  10. joefromoklahoma says:

    Thanks for these; the last four have been absolutely excellent – the essence of why I hang out here.
    Patience, impatience, self-awareness…that’s a journey we’re on till the last light goes out.
    Two things:
    I was referred out of the hall in my first year of apprenticeship to the maintenance crew of one of the older/finer office buildings downtown. A week or so later, another younger journeyman came on. That first day, as the foreman – an old head who’d served his apprenticeship before the war – explained a task to him, he asked “How good do you want that?” I watched the foreman’s eyes glint grey and his jaw kinda set. “You do the very best you can,” he replied, “It probably won’t be any too good.” He had heard that predisposition to compromise in the question and had no doubt of who he was dealing with thereafter. The kid lasted till the first layoff; I never saw him again.

    Leonard Cohen sings:
    Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack, a crack in everything
    That’s how the light gets in.

    Thanks again

  11. I usually despise the term mandatory… It usually does not do any good to the ones imposed. In this case however, I would make an exception. It should be mandatory for anyone with leadership aspirations to know thoughts like these. Hayward or not. They should know how to infuse this (or at least a very similar) view of life into those they lead, while they themselves adhering to it even stronger. To know how to pass on a task in such fashion that the confidence in the one performing it is the driving force. To only interfere to guide and help, and not to force, bully or belittle. The latter unfortunately being the order of the day in many places over the world these days. Broken work, spirits and confidence as a result thereof.

  12. paul6000000 says:

    This passage applies so broadly. I couldn’t help thinking about my work in illustration. It never turns out as well as I’d hope and it’s never “fine art” but slogging on, working to improve, is the only way forward; coming to terms with your weaknesses and hoping to make something worthwhile, if not perfect.

  13. R. says:

    I wonder at the likeliness of Hayward’s familiarity with C.S. Lewis.

    “We see only the result which a man’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.” (Mere Christianity, 1952)

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