Understanding

Traditional woodworking requires an inordinate degree of skill compared with most power tools. When I started it all seemed easy. Later I found that it was easy because I knew so little. The big problem with learning is we don’t distinguish between knowledge and understanding.

Being chair bound one must find things one is able to do to keep oneself occupied. After a couple months of reading and watching instructional videos I reached a point where the bucket wouldn’t hold any more. While reading a book on Joinery that I’d had for about twenty-five years I said to BK, “It’s amazing that it took me so long to read this book.” I turned the page to see that I’d highlighted a number of passages. I had read the book. I hadn’t remembered what I’d read. Why had I forgotten? My memory is legendary among my friends and acquaintances. I remember things they said or did thirty years ago, much to their chagrin.

I’d forgotten because I’d failed to apply the knowledge I’d stuffed into my head. It’s like a foreign language. After you learn it, if you don’t use it, it begins to evaporate. You must practice to keep it. After the age of nineteen the part of the brain that learns language begins to go to sleep. It becomes more and more difficult to wake it up and get it moving. Once you do wake it up you have to keep feeding it coffee and walking it around the room to keep it from falling asleep again. It’s an all nighter that lasts the rest of your life. I learned my second language at around fifty years of age. Younger people outpaced me every single day. But I had something they didn’t have. Desire. I wanted to learn, badly. I was committed to learning, no matter what the cost.

The only way to drill in new ideas and potential skills is to practice them. Relentlessly. If you don’t, they remain knowledge until they fade away to imagination. Understanding is what properly connects one thing to another. Any fool can connect the hip bone to the neck bone. Even a child knows the hip bone’s connected to the thigh bone. Who would you rather have perform surgery on you? A person who read a book on surgery or a person who read all the books they could get and practiced the procedure many times? I agree with you. I look for the latter as well. It’s because we know both instinctively and experientially that knowledge and understanding are as different as night and day.

If you want to make a good mortise and tenon joint you have to read all about it, watch someone do it who knows how to do it. Then do it yourself. Your first mortise and tenon joint will probably look like it. But the third and fourth will look different, better, even recognizable. I’ve heard it said, Practice makes perfect. It’s not true, but it’s a good start. Perfect practice makes perfect. Poor practice doesn’t make perfect until you learn from poor practice how to improve your practice. Once you’ve got that knowledge under your belt you can apply it and improve. If you have a passion for something you’re going to do it. If you love what you’re doing you’re going to want to do it well. Put those two desires together, put some legs under them, and you can become a master.

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