On carpentry and college

By NINA MACLAUGHLIN  |  October 20, 2011

For three out of four of my college years, my head was in a book (that other year, in Dublin, my head was in a pint glass). I didn't have any interaction with the material world. I envied my pals who worked part-time at a bike shop in Center City. An urge exists in most of us to do work with our hands, to spend time engaged in a project, and to see our efforts rewarded by a tangible outcome: the shelves stand, the sweater fits, the soup is good. I did not learn anything in college about the pleasure and necessity of familiarity with the stuff and the things around us that are easiest to take for granted.

There's no question that we're more connected than we've ever been, but those connections, blips and bleeps and quiet calls out into the dark wilderness of the Internet, are often tenuous, and at worst, false. We've been distanced from the realities closest to us. And the ivory towers don't tend to get you any closer. It's not necessarily an awful thing, but it's worth being aware of.

College is a safe place. It's a continuation of the first 18 or so years of your education. Something extremely valuable that I didn't learn in college was how to fail. And it turns out that what all the wisepeople say about failure, that it's where the best learning comes from, is true. I studied stuff I already had an interest in and an aptitude for. So I didn't learn, at that point, what happens when you really fuck up, when you make a big, bad mistake. I didn't learn how to solve the errors and how to resolve what went wrong. This applies in carpentry. The work does not come naturally to me. My brain does somersaults to figure out how to get something right. I've fucked up. I've made some big mistakes. I've had to figure out ways to fix them. I've had to figure out ways not to get paralyzed by the dead-wrong move and get things back on track. College didn't prepare me for failure in carpentry or in life generally. It stinks to get shit wrong, but it's one of the most valuable things that can happen to you. Allowing yourself to get something wrong is a crucial thing to be able to do. Better than anything else, it will show you how to get it right.

I have a sense that it might be a little different now, but for me in college, it was a solo pursuit, an individual endeavor (except for my remedial-math requirement where we took exams in groups). I was not required to do many group projects; I didn't have to work in teams. A decade has likely changed this. I learned the pleasures (and challenges) of working with other humans after college. While I strongly believe being able to spend time by yourself toiling (or staring at your ceiling) is invaluable, the ability to collaborate and the satisfactions it yields are crucial, too.

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