Saturday, January 12, 2013

What happens if you make a mistake?

Are you scared to start a boatbuilding or other project in case you mess up, in case you make a mistake? What will people say, will your friends joke about it and embarrass you?

Nearly everyone makes mistakes. Those who say that they don't make mistakes are either lying or are not pushing the boundaries of their own ability. As long as we are trying new things, taking on new life experiences, we will make mistakes. It is an essential part of the whole learning experience. Sure, it is nice to learn from the mistakes that are made by others but we learn more lessons, we learn them faster and the message sticks better when we make those mistakes ourselves. The more painful the mistake, the stronger the lesson that we will learn.

When I designed the Paper Jet, I had a particular building procedure in mind for the boat. As it turned out, the Paper Jet could not be built the way that I had envisaged. So, I had to go back a few steps and think of a different way to assemble it. I did that and went ahead and built my boat by a different method. I had a few other smaller backtracks and eventually had my boat complete.

Did I make some mistakes? Yes I did but so what? I made those mistakes because I was doing something that I had never done before. I was doing something that nobody had done before. I needed to learn the lessons that had to come out of building this prototype so that I could write the building instructions in the best way that I could, to enable other builders to get it right without making those same mistakes.

If I was scared of making mistakes I would not be trying new things. I designed and built the first radius chine plywood boat, my own "Black Cat", and made some mistakes along the way. Every time I was able to recover the situation very quickly and move on to the next stage of building. Overall, the project was a great success. Along the way I shrugged off the comments and criticisms of others because they were of no consequence unless I allowed them to be. They were generally from people who have never built anything major themselves. It is normal that the people who will laugh when someone makes a mistake are those who don't achieve much themselves. Disregard those people.

While building "Black Cat", one evening I was working with a spindle router shaping some small plywood parts. I was annoyed about an interruption unrelated to what I was doing and which had broken my concentration. In my distracted state of mind, I put my right thumb through the router bit, which was spinning at 20,000rpm. It made 11 cuts to the bone in the space of 1/2" and I was spraying blood. Within a minute or two I was passing out from pain and shock and was hauled off the the doctor. She said she had never seen such neatly done damage to human flesh and described it as sliced like deli meat. She was able to fix it with one stitch threaded through all of the slices. The worst impact from my mistake was a couple of weeks knocked out of the middle of my already tight building schedule.

OK, so we all make mistakes. Hopefully most of them will be to your boat rather than to yourself. How do you recover from your mistake? First you need to know what your mistake was, i.e. what it was that you did and what you should have done differently. That should help you to figure whether or not you can take apart the incorrect work. If you can take it apart then do so and rebuild it correctly. If you can't take it apart then you must figure the best way to modify the structure to correct it.

When you buy a set of quality boat plans you get access to a support system as part of the package. That includes being able to ask the designer for advice when needed and to steer you along the best path whenever you have a problem. You may think of a way to correct it but the designer, from past experience, may be able to offer some other alternatives and to say what will be best. It is likely that the designer or someone else has made the same mistake before.

The important things to understand are:-
  1. You will occasionally make mistakes.
  2. Some of those mistakes will be silly ones and may embarrass you. Laugh them off. Take control of the situation and correct it, don't allow the mistake to take control of you.
  3. The designer of your boat should be available to help. Contact him, explain your mistake and ask for advice.
  4. You can recover from most mistakes. It may take a bit of application on your part but you can do it.
  5. When your boat is finished you will know where your mistakes are but most other people will never see them.
When prospective builders tell me that they could not build to the standard that they see in my Paper Jet, I sometimes point out some imperfect workmanship so that they can see that my work, like theirs, is not perfect. We all make mistakes. Fix them, then get on with life.


Bill Connor said...

I'm enjoying your new blog and would like to come clean and confess a most embarrassing mistake building our 40cr. So embarrassing, only myself and my son know about it and he uses it frequently for blackmail. When raising the bulkheads I repeatedly transposed 64 to 46 and ended with the spacing between D and F being 18mm short. I didn't discover this added character until I was laminating the floors and the floor in question wasn't coming up against E. Puzzlement quickly lead to utter horror as a I realized my error. I'm sure a time lapse of my facial expressions over that 30 minutes would be most comical. I couldn't sleep that night and was such a wreck that I actually considered cutting off the keel, sheer clamps, floors, and stringers and starting over. Morning light brought a new perspective. Structurally, the correction would be trivial, shaving a few mm off some bulkheads would make the hull once again fair, and the build continues on our Didi 39.9cr!

The two takeaways are that 1) even significant mistakes can be remedied by dividing the problem into structural (which your designer can help with) and cosmetic problems, dealing with each independently and 2) do not expect perfection unless your are, in fact, perfect.

Dudley Dix said...

Bill, thanks for your input. Every boatbuilder will have a few stories about mistakes, most of which nobody else will ever spot. Now that you have "fessed up", the blackmail value has gone from your mistake.

You are right, sleeping on the problem almost always brings a much more sensible point of view and the solution that morning gives is normally much simpler than what the brain conjures up in panic immediately after discovery of the error.