Bumping Up Against Your Limits


How do you get better? By learning more and doing more. At first, things either come naturally, or they require a lot of work to master. Eventually, you start to bump up against stuff that’s harder to overcome. And sometimes, after lots and lots of work, it feels like you’re coming up against the true limits to your talent.

For an athlete, that might mean that your body just doesn’t have the capacity to go faster, or respond quicker, or to jump higher. For a musician, it may be the inability to play a certain piece perfectly no matter how much you practice. And for a woodworker, it may be the inability to shape, join, smooth, or finish a project just the way you would like.

I will not in any way deny that there are limits to your ability, but those limits of are significantly further along than you might realize, though. Having trained extensively to be a classical musician, and then later on with a coach as a cyclist and runner, I’ve come to realize now that you can almost always push farther and improve more than you would ever think possible.

But most of us have other limits that are far more constraining than ultimate ability; we have families, jobs, and all kinds of other obligations and passions that prevent taking our skills all the way to their maximum. And this can be frustrating.

So how can you improve as much as possible in the limited time and with the limited energy you have available to you?

1) Take a class. It’s one of the fastest ways to give yourself a boost A good teacher or coach will find ways to push you well beyond what you think is possible.

2) Stop reading quite so much (or watching so many videos) and start making stuff. Sure, the stuff you read is important, but actually making things is far more important. Stop reading this right now if it means that you’ll go to your shop and make something. You may feel like you don’t know the right way to do something. Try to figure it out on your own. There really isn’t a “right way” to do anything. But figuring something out on your own is infinitely more valuable.

3) Get comfortable making mistakes. If you shy away from mistakes, you’ll also avoid challenges, and you can’t possibly get better without challenging yourself. Switch to cheaper wood if you’re uncomfortable messing up the good stuff.

4) Work on your weaknesses. It’s really tempting to just play to your strengths, and you shouldn’t neglect them, but you’ve got much more room for improvement with your shortcomings.

5) Be sure to balance out hard work on things you need to work on with “play” – stuff that’s just plain fun and fast to do. It will keep you fresher and more engaged. Oh. And it’s more fun.

6) Have tools that are good enough. You don’t need tools that are perfect. In fact, you’ll hold yourself back more by fussing your tools or your shop to perfection than you would by actually getting to work with tools that are simply fine. I’m not saying don’t learn how to sharpen well. But avoid the temptation to have the perfect tools or to make everything perfect before you attempt to use it.

7) Find places to practice. Even hack-sawing an aluminum bar can improve your dovetails if you work on your saw technique while you cut the bar (at least for a little while, until you get frustrated and just want to actually hack through the rest of it). You don’t have years to mess around; get practice anywhere you can.

8) Concentrate on the fundamentals. They makes everything else easier. Oddly enough, I know a good place to go for this: my newly released book, The Foundations of Better Woodworking.

Jeff Miller