Anselm Fraser, Chippendale school principal

Learning from failure

In his third article for The Woodworker magazine, principle Anselm Fraser looks at how failure can be a good thing.

Every professional or hobbyist woodworker wants to make wonderful and inspiring pieces of furniture, and bask in the glow of complete success.

However, the reality is that we are all human, and humans make mistakes.  Sometimes we succeed, but sometimes we fail.

But while success can teach us lessons, so too can failure, and that’s particularly true for woodworkers who are still learning their craft.  Novice woodworkers should not only expect to make mistakes, but to welcome them.

Failure should give pause for thought for any woodworker.  Why is this chair wonky?  Did I measure three times and cut once?

And sometimes what appears to be a mistake can be turned to advantage.  For example, we run a wood kitchens business from the Chippendale school campus.

Imperfection and success

We make all the dovetails on our drawers a different size.  To a perfectionist who knows little about woodwork that might look like a mistake.

However, it clearly shows that the piece has been made by hand, and not by a machine.  In other words, imperfection can sometimes be success.

The simple fact is that failure is often the portal to achievement.  The trick is to learn from our mistakes and to not make the same mistake twice.

For example, we had an Italian student last year who was making a rocking chair – except that, when the main components of the chair were assembled, it didn’t rock.

However, this gifted young man thought round the problem and added in additional pieces to the chair.  The design of the chair wasn’t compromised, but weight was redistributed, and the chair rocked.

He had developed what some psychologists term as a growth mindset, where an individual believes that through hard work and effort we can grow and learn.  It’s a mindset that encourages us to take chances and, yes, to fail – but to never regard failure as a permanent outcome.

My advice to novice woodworkers is to be both the hare and the tortoise.

When making a long-term decision – for example, the design of a chair or table – take your time over it.  Be a tortoise.  Our Italian student should have been a tortoise at this early design stage!

But when the decision is made, accept that the time for consideration is over, and just get on with it.  In other words, become a hare.

As in anything, mistakes and failure are part and parcel of learning the woodworking craft.  After all, Henry Ford’s first two companies failed – and through that experience he learned how to make the third successful.

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