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My Island of Misfit Toys

Not all of my carvings work out. In fact, the more I stretch the limits of my skills to try new designs and new carving techniques, the more often I fail. This used to trouble me. But now I am starting to embrace it.

I've even started saving my failures. I now have quite a collection of them. I call them my Island of Misfit Toys.

Attempted carvings earn their way into this growing collection in a number of ways. Sometimes, I try a new design and it turns out to be just ugly. Sometimes the design is good but my skills as a woodcarver are not yet developed well enough to turn the design into an attractive end-product. Sometimes, too, I mis-read the wood that I have started to carve and discover--only after I am deep into the project--some inherent flaws, knots or cracks in the wood that render my efforts at carving useless in that instance.

I used to throw those mistakes away. Now I keep them.

Periodically, when I am looking for inspiration, I go over to my collection of discards and ask myself important quesitons. What was my original inspiration when I started that project? What went wrong? How might I try something similar but different to have a better outcome next time? Does this scrap represent a flaw in my design thinking or in my carving skills or in my understanding of wood in its natural shape? What can I do differently next time? What have I learned about myself, about my eye for design, or about my skills as a carver, since I tried that one?

I am learning (albeit slowly) that my failures are only failures if I see them that way. By re-framing how I think of them, I can see them not as failures, but as lessons to be learned. And that sustains me through dry spells of creativity and lag-times before I carve the next spoon that I can be really proud of.

I once thought that success was linear. It is not. It's more of a twisty, curvy, hilly mountain road filled with potholes. Success is, therefore, a slower drive, but the scenery along the way is more interesting than if it were a highway.

Four years ago, I carved a set of tasting spoons that I am still proud of to this day. They're featured on my Home Page here: But try as I might, I have not been able to successfully carve again the spirals I made for that set. My Island of Misfit Toys now has four attempts at spiraled handles that did not pass muster. And I still don't know why. Someday I will discover how to replicate my earlier success.

The whole experience reminds me of the comment that Steve Blank makes so often, and so effectively, about startups. His defnition of a startup includes the elements of "being in search of... a repeatable... business model." I am in search of a repeatable carving model. Other elements of his defintion include being in search of a repeatable, profitable, scalable business model. Those last two are still far ahead of me. First things first.

As I continue to reflect upon the life lessons being taught me by this woodcarving hobby, I am reminded over-and-over again of Steve Blank's dictum. As a craftsman, I'm still a startup. I am still in search of how to create "repeatable" spoon patterns. The learning... and dare I say it, the fun, is in the search.

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Reflections while Carving

My mind was wandering the other day, in a very free and creative way. I enjoyed the feeling. I’m not sure what will come of it, but I expect some kind of clarity or insightfulness will soon appear. At


Sep 29, 2023

I really enjoyed reading this, as I know nothing about wood carving and am in awe of it! This idea of having the perfect repeated pattern seems nearly impossible while working with a medium like wood. I love that you've started collecting your misfits and honoring them by reflecting on what you learned through the project and their unique 'flaws'. This blog piece put a lot of new thoughts/ideas in my brain that have never been there before, thank you for that!

Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

You are welcome. Thanks for commenting on it. Cliff


Sep 22, 2023

Deeply insightful and instructive. Good reminder to always be reflective, inquisitive, and, with a good dose of self- honesty, we can discover things deserving of “repeatability”. Thank you for sharing, Cliff.

Sep 29, 2023
Replying to

Melanie, it is great to hear from you. Thanks for these comments. Cliff

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