In woodworking, and a lot of other fields, there exists a variation on the saying “a poor woodworker blames his tools.”  The thought that if only I had those tools, or those resources, or that setup, I wouldn’t be having this problem is a convenient and difficult-to-disprove balm to pride and psyche.  It’s also a crutch that can ultimately retard a person’s ability to improve.

Much of our improvement – in life, in hobbies, in work, in relationships – derives from confronting and overcoming obstacles, thinking through challenges, and developing solutions.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and the father is ingenuity.  The impetus for this post came from my recent work on designing and building a wooden side table on my newly built workbench.  I practiced the joinery in construction lumber – mortise and tenon joints, half-blind dovetails, shiplap, match planning – so that I would know mostly what I was doing before cutting into the much more expensive hardwood I intend to use for the final table, and I found myself confronting how I wanted to do the legs.  The design I’d sketched called for round, tapered legs with rectangular tops to better mate with the table’s aprons and top.

Most of the time, I consider myself fairly good about not blaming my tools.  This is not an assertion of any particular skill in carpentry on my part, but more a factor of my personality; in most of what I do, I tend not to allow a lack of appropriate equipment to deter me from my objectives, whether that’s in writing, map-making, cooking, running, engineering, physics, or woodworking.  In the case of these legs, though, I found myself confronted with a problem.  I’ve accumulated a fair number of tools over the years, but I do not have a lathe, which is the obvious solution for creating the kind of leg I was envisioning.  I rip cut a 2×4 in half, so that I had two, somewhat dwarfish leg blanks, and then I stood and stared at them while I thought.

Option one was to buy a powered lathe, but I quickly dismissed that choice as being too expensive for something that I was unlikely to use frequently, would take up more space than I wanted, and was too akin to giving up for my tastes.  Option two was to build my own, hand-powered lathe.  I went so far as to design my own lathe powered by a bicycle gear rig.  It’s something that I might decide to build one day, but I decided that I didn’t want to delay the table project while I figured out actually building such a contraption.  So I stopped delaying, got out my carving knife, sat down, and got to work.  In a surprisingly short amount of time, I’d pared enough wood away to have a very respectable, leg-looking form that was quite akin to what I’d envisioned.

In other words, I took a need, applied a bit of ingenuity, and developed a workable solution.  By practicing, I developed a skillset – I don’t claim any particular carving aptitude (it’s a little too close to visual art), and I was still able to achieve, with some sanding and filing, a professional result – and overcame a challenge.  Just look at how much the graphics I build for the website have improved from the Blood Magic symbol, to the IGC logo, to the Destiny of Kings symbol.  Sure, I could have spent money, hired a graphic designer and a marketing expert, and come out with maybe a better product, but that would not be nearly as satisfying, nor as educational.

The point in all of this is that challenges shouldn’t be perceived as obstacles or barriers, but instead as opportunities.  Every problem is an unfulfilled need, awaiting an application of human ingenuity to develop a solution.  Calling it “invention” might sometimes seem pretentious, as it conjures to mind thoughts of revolutionary new technologies that will dramatically alter our civilization, but it can be much smaller, and even something that has already been invented by someone else but that you have invented for yourself, like my bicycle-driven lathe design.  I can’t imagine that I’m the first person to have designed a system of gears that convert the motion of a bicycle gear assembly into motion that could spin a length of wood for carving, but that does not negate that I came up with the idea and the design independently.

I could come up with more examples of necessity and ingenuity coming together, like the time that I wanted to explore the assumptions underlying the HCW equations of motion, but did not have access to my usual advanced computing tools, or the internet, and ended up deriving by hand a formula for the perimeter of an ellipse (it’s a lot harder than it sounds, even though I did not use any hypergeometric functions); however, I think you get the point.  You can blame your circumstances, your past, your surroundings, people you know or don’t know, society, your tools, or whatever.  That’s the easy option, but it doesn’t get you anywhere, and really just holds you back more than any of those factors, however, legitimate, could possibly retard you.  Or, you could look at these impediments, and instead see them just as problems awaiting solutions, opportunities for you to learn something new, adapt, grow more competent and capable.

One thought on “The Father of Invention

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