Or, as I’ve heard it said, there are no mistakes, only opportunities. So I guess I only make opportunities.
Regardless, mistakes seem to me to be a fact of life. We might do all we can to avoid them, but here they come, anyway.
There are different types of mistakes. The most obvious is what I’ll call a mistake of idiocy: you use your best skills to do the wrong thing really well. In other words, a mistake of planning. You meant to put the door on right-side up, plumb and level, and you did. But while you attention was on that, you forgot to check that the correct side was facing out. A mistake. Might as well start repairing it now.
Then there are the mistakes of execution: a slip of the wrist for a carver, who then bites a little deeper with the gouge, and cuts into some of his “shape I see in my mind” within the stone. He can’t put it back. Or a hand plane hits an unexpected change in grain direction, and tears out a neat little irreplaceable divot in the perfect surface of a tabletop. You meant to do one thing, but through your fault, or another’s fault, or no fault, the universe decrees that, lo, this other thing shall instead be done. And there it sits staring at you. Might as well start repairing it now.
Those are my least favorite mistakes.
There are all kinds of ways to “repair” mistakes, and the more mistakes you make, the more ways you get to learn. You realize it’s a gradient, from the lucky easily-fixed mistakes, all the way up to doing over the entire piece from the beginning. The good news is, at least there IS always a way to repair them, even if it means total replacement. There’s a grim sort of satisfaction in that: you can’t possibly fail.
Might as well start repairing it now.
But it seems to me there are other kinds of mistakes that do not to fall into these categories: I’ll call them mistakes of intention. The work is going perfectly well, everything is going as planned, but you suddenly realize something’s not right about the whole project. I don’t usually realize I’ve made these kinds of mistakes until halfway through a project. Perhaps I planned to make a comfortable desk for writing — but suddenly realize I’ve made the size too small to fit a chair underneath the desktop. Is the project ruined? Well, kind of, sort of…well, yes. if it makes the desk uncomfortable to use.
These are my favorite kind of mistakes. This is not because I like them, but the mistake, if it does its job, demonstrates the way to improve the design…you step back and look at the larger picture, and realize that if you just proceeded THIS way instead of that way, the design would work. And work better. And you’d entirely avoid the situation that led to the mistake. You correct the system instead of applying lotion to the symptom. You re-think the whole process. You’re more efficient, more productive, and the whole experience is just a little more fun.
But here is my all-time favorite type of mistake: you think you really screw up doing some part of the job: you ruin a special panel, or accidentally cut a joint backwards, or cut a piece of wood the wrong size, and you think: “That’s it. It’s ruined.” But then you step back. You look at it again, in light of what you’ll have to fix, and you realize you just made it better! Maybe the panel didn’t look as good as another one you had in reserve. Maybe the piece looks better with the joint facing the other direction. Maybe the wood size is actually more pleasing than the size you would’ve used.
Maybe I subconsciously wanted to make the mistake, knowing it would improve things. Who knows? But this has happened to me, about one in a hundred mistakes. A gift from the gods.
Just in time. Now you get to make whole new mistakes!