Expectations and the Literal Thinker

In the past few days there has been a, lets call it lively, discussion over on Paul Sellers’ Woodworking Masterclasses forum.  Generally speaking, the entire thing centered on two complaints voiced by a single member.

The first complaint was that the when and why of which joinery to employ was not being directly addressed.  The second complaint was that the woodworking instruction was not directly addressing how to design a piece of furniture.  While these issues are technically correct, all of the information is there in Mr. Sellers’ videos and blogs for those willing to observe, think and extrapolate for themselves.

For some reason society in general has shifted to an absolute literal way of thinking.  Every step and element of a process must be spelled out in order for people to understand and perform that process.  Here is an example from my workplace:

An employee was told to sweep the floor in his work area.  Upon inspection of the area there were several piles of debris remaining.  When questioned, the employee stated that he was only told to sweep the area, hence the piles, but no one had told him to use a dustpan and deposit the debris in a trashcan.  He was quite sincere in his belief that he had faithfully followed the instruction that he was given.

The above example is just one of numerous that I could provide that demonstrates the current way that people seem to approach everyday tasks.  Logical”next step” thinking, i.e. common sense, no longer seems to apply.  I have no idea as to the “why” of this phenomenon, I just know that is exists.  Now back to my original rant.

One aspect of Paul Sellers’ approach to woodworking is that every project can be constructed with the application of one or more three basic joints.  The housing dado, dovetail and the mortise and tenon joint.  While the joints themselves may vary in execution, the three joint philosophy runs throughout his projects.

Every project that Mr. Sellers has demonstrated has employed this joinery approach, from the first project to the current chair project.  While it is true that he has not explicitly stated “thou shalt”, from the examples presented it is quite easy to extrapolate the when and the why.  Boxes, cases, frames, tables, drawers and seating have all been addressed at this point.  Throughout each project Mr. Sellers has demonstrated the construction of each joint in great detail.  It seams more than reasonable that any woodworker should be able to easily understand, given the examples, what joint type is best suited for an application or, at the very least, know which joint Mr. Sellers would choose.

Now the complaint regarding design.  I’ve been with Masterclasses from the beginning and I don’t remember design being promised as part of the curriculum.  Woodworking, specifically hand tool woodworking, is what is presented.  Design is a completely different animal and only comes into play if you want to build pieces of your own, well, design.  There have been thousands upon thousands of master craftsman throughout history who never generated an original design.  Instead they replicated the designs of others.  However, Mr. Sellers does convey through his projects, both directly and indirectly, proportions and other basic elements.  Again, with a little effort and thought there is a wealth of information to be had in what Mr. Sellers has and does present.

I know that this reads as a defense on Paul Sellers’ behalf.  That’s not really my intent.  He’s a grown man and doesn’t need the likes of me leaping to his defense.   I’m actually just venting frustration against this type of narrow, literal thinking that seems to be plaguing society.  Like a nest of baby birds waiting with their mouths open to be fed and chirping with complaint when what is handed to them doesn’t meet with their approval.

Close your mouth, open your mind, get off your ass and put a little effort into life.  You will be amazed at what you can accomplish.

Greg Merritt


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16 Responses to Expectations and the Literal Thinker

  1. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    I cannot even express how much this speaks to me. I have been reprimanded for not being willing to make extensive working drawings of furniture for a lazy half-wit on more than one occasion. My Vardo building pages have been attacked by the entitled internet Anons for not being able to state in exact measures how many fasteners will need to be purchased to build their own project. I was loudly scolded for not making an exact dimensional cutting list for the thousands pf pieces that make up the project, and so on and on and on.

    “Close your mouth, open your mind, get off your ass and put a little effort into life. You will be amazed at what you can accomplish” says it all.

  2. erik hinkston says:

    well stated, well said. I couldn’t agree more. Your example of the workspace sweeping is spot on with what I see in many places I visit for work. It reminds me sometimes about raising kids, teaching them to open their eyes and observe. To do a bit more than what is expected, this generally leads to excelling in this great land of ours where the minimum will get you by. I think a lot of questions posed are answered with a very quick search of google, or our creative minds…

  3. mndak76 says:

    I agree with you Greg. 100% literal thinking in woodworking or any craft = no creativity which will lead to disappointment and eventual quitting the craft. I am a long time member of WWMC. I’ve grown a little weary with his site lately. I would suggest to Mr. Sellers to create a fork in the road and create a beginners pathway and a continued “advanced” or “masterclass” path for the longtime members. I’ve been hanging in there hoping to see some veneer work / steam bending / or the elusive carrot – the rocking chair.

  4. Bob Gilkison says:

    Learned helplessness. The need to be guided, instructed and of course rescued, all to,avoid thinking. Here in New Zealand which was once a country chock full of do it yourself, work it out, and invent a way there is a new paradigm shift into an expectation of non thinking and lack of enquiry and needs being met with no effort. A mistake is seen as failure, and in this context relating to design how often is the piece built as it was first conceived, the process for me a a confirmed evolver of the idea, sometimes over many months, only to have it not quite work, mistake yes, failure no way. I have friends who I share the “failure” with and often a new solution arises from an another view which I have missed, we all learn, stretch our minds, and come up with elegant and effective solutions. I can only assume this fear of failing so pervasive because people make unrealistic goals, where only the penultimate success is seen and worshipped. The journey, remember the journey!

  5. TIWilson says:

    Funny. I didnt see this on Paul’s site, so now im curious. I would love for Paul to talk about how he designs and maybe get into the nitty gritty of which joint and why from a more theoretical level. But that would be a “nice to have.” You are absolutely right about it not being part of the promised package, as well as that Paul has provided a wealth of knowledge that can be used well beyond just making his designs. Im in the middle of making a coffee table based on his dining room table. It’s taken some work, thinking and planning, but I think i’ve managed to shrink it and tweak a few things in doing so. Not easy, but I wasnt looking for easy. I kind of dont get how other woodworkers want an easy answer…

  6. Paul says:

    Very well put Greg.
    I wanted to respond on WWMC but feared I would just be feeding a troll.
    Asking ‘Just teach me design’ shows an inability to understand what design ability actually is. My cousin designs pottery and silverware: she spent 3 years at college and 10 years in work learning how to do it. Much as I would love her to teach me what she knows, it’s just not possible.
    Paul has spent 50 years at it. Every video project I watch, and still more when I build one, teaches me something new, not just in the techniques but also, almost imperceptibly in the design process.
    That process is a distillation of centuries of cultural craft tradition, linked to an awareness of the likely skill level of the intended audience. Also a very clever emphasis on designs favouring features that favour the hand tool bias he promotes. It’s what I like most about what I have made – that an informed observer will know that this object could not have been made by machine methods. And sometimes I have to admit that’s also because of tool marks or imperfections. But that’s OK with me.
    Thanks for raising this.
    And thanks for your indispensable drawings that line my workshop wall.

  7. Bob Easton says:

    Hear here!
    I saw the complaints a week or so ago and followed the thread as it existed then. I came to exactly the same conclusion you have. My wife is a teacher and over the years I have learned from her that people have many different learning paths. Some are intuitive. Some are extremely literal. Some need to be led. And it’s remarkable how many blame their woes on the teacher when they aren’t willing to “Close your mouth, open your mind, get off your ass and put a little effort into life.”

    There’s another aspect that colors my opinion. People who write complete sentences, with careful grammar, and in an thoughtful order gain a lot more standing in my mind than those who shun capitalization and simply spill out a stream of consciousness made up of few coherent sentences and a lot of simply random phrases. Did the same education system that taught the complainer to be dependent on everyone but himself also fail to teach basic language use? …or maybe the shift(less) key on his computer is broken.

  8. Damien says:

    Another problem with society is poor reading skills, I read ‘lateral’ thinking up to the comment section 🙂

  9. Derek Long says:

    Total agreement here, Greg. I have to echo what George mentioned about people wanting to be spoonfed and given plans to everything. Some projects here or there have been literally three or four cutoffs of two-bys nailed together, and someone asks for plans. Open thine eyes and pick up a pencil. Figure it out and make it your own.

  10. ant11sam says:

    Very well!
    Great text!

  11. Gavin says:

    I studied Industrial Design at University and as students we were asked to define design. The best I came up with at the time is.’Design is what you make it’ Although simplistic to the point of almost being dismissive even the lecturer did not supply a better alternative and responded that there was a lack of definition. As I have developed a more refined understanding through hands on experience it has become even more apparent to me that the actual practise cements and builds on basic fundamentals that are merely components of a whole and as such do not define design as such. The definition and understanding come with your own experience and as such is unique and open to your own successes and failures. I still stand by that statement I made 20 odd years ago not because of any great belief in it as a core definition of design but what is entailed in helping to understand it. Agree wholeheartedly with the last statement Greg.

  12. In defense of the people wanting full plans I’ll say this. I have several friends that are better woodworkers than I will ever be. The one thing that separates us that I can look at a picture of something and then go make it. No drawings, no cut lists, just a picture to go by. My friends couldn’t face nail two boards together without a 10 page multi-fold plan.
    I can see both sides of the coin but I agree with Greg’s assessment. Paul is teaching hand tool woodworking not how to design projects

  13. Dave says:

    I agree with you. I support Paul’s methods of doing what he does. I remember him encouraging others to design their own projects. He has mentioned numerous times that he builds his own designs. It is not the primary function of his website to teach design. Hand tool woodworking using 10 tools( which I count differently, though that is another matter) and 3 joints. I do remember something of him encouraging others to design and build their own clocks after the original series. He also mentioned designing your own walking canes. This seems to go along with the apprentice methodology. I worked with an immigrant Tool and Die maker who would point to something that I was supposed to correct. He never spoke. I was trained to observe and respond accordingly.
    Once I got into engineering I was taught to document the process in painstaking detail for others to follow. I usually did this documentation after building the prototypes and understanding what was required. Therefore, I blame the lack of common sense on technology. Folks have been taught not to overstep direction. Generally speaking,could this be because those giving direction do not know how to modify the process if a mistake does occur? I know that folks in the workplace are afraid to overstep the limits of their assignment for fear of reprisal. Do note that that was in an FDA controlled environment.
    Perhaps the misunderstanding of the person is that in crafting everything is not spoon fed since it is a work of risk. That is you are translating thought into physical reality. Paul’s projects remove this design risk, especially with the help of your sketches. I enjoy what you folks do, the person in question probably does also, but does not have the vision to take what is given and translate it. Whether this is from a lack of training or laziness is not really known to me. He should probably be encouraged to give his creative wings a try in the same room with someone who knows what they are doing. He will not get this over the internet. The closest he will come is Paul’s videos or perhaps someone else who is doing a similar type of presentation.

  14. Greg, I could not agree more. I have never been afraid to fail, I just want to reduce the number of ways I will fail.I benefitted from an excellent high school industrial arts program in wood, metal, electricity, plastics, automotive, small engine, and machining. Nothing dies an easy death at my house! I have 42 years in at an aerospace company, 39 in the test lab. Most of the younger people have no backround, training, curiousity, or courage to tackle new things. They usually are not uncouraged by management to develope these traits because they do not have them either and think those who do will never retire or die. They are not cross-trained into well rounded, thinking technicians. Instead, they pretty much become “operators” who know a couple of things and are SOL when things do not work correctly. Dave brought up what I would say, sadly, is a valid point. A hobby such as woodworking could be just the thing bring out what has never been asked of in a person. But not every site is going to be for everyone.Keep up the good work.

  15. Pingback:  Extrapolation  | GREG MERRITT – BY MY OWN HANDS

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