When I was a teenager, I kept a saltwater aquarium. It was a frustrating hobby, with seemingly-healthy animals dying overnight, infestations of weird aquatic pests, and a spate of disappearances traced to a small predatory fish with an oversized appetite. But over time I learned from my experiences, did as much research as I could in those Web 1.0 days, and got better. Notoriously tricky organisms flourished in my care. A sickly coral bought at discount grew enormous, colonizing half the tank with bright pink polyps. I wasn't exactly a marine biologist, but I wasn't an amateur anymore, either.
On a trip to pick up food, something I'd never seen for sale before caught my eye. A tiny, jewel-colored sea slug was gliding down the side of a display tank. It was almost alien, the kind of thing you'd see in National Geographic or on the Discovery Channel. I desperately wanted this strange creature in my collection.
I knew that sea slugs, or nudibranchs, were notoriously tough to keep - "experts only," warned my guidebook. Some only eat a single species of algae, others need water quality that perfectly matches their home reef. Almost all are extremely poisonous. But after all I had learned, I was confident in my abilities to keep anything in captivity, no matter how delicate.
After introducing it to my tank, I watched it peacefully graze among the rocks in its new habitat. It looked as beautiful as it had in the store, and seemed to take an immediate liking to its surroundings. After I fed its tank mates and shut the lights off, I wondered if the writers of the guidebook really knew what they were talking about.
The next morning, there was a film across the surface of the water. Almost everything in the aquarium was dead. Something had stressed the slug out - maybe the water wasn't the right temperature, maybe a hermit grab got curious and tried a little pinch - and it released a cloud of toxic mucous as its defense mechanism. In the wild, this would drive predators away and dissipate in the ocean, but in the tank, it was armageddon. The fish were drained of their color, lying stiffly on the sand; my rescued coral was shrunken and limp, like an overcooked vegetable.
I took a risk, and it went badly (even more so for the poor fish). But the risk-taking itself wasn't the mistake, it was the blind charge forward. I didn't proceed with caution, didn't plan for failure, didn't quarantine an animal I knew to be poisonous. I was so sure of my own abilities that I assumed I would be successful. When I failed, I was trapped.
This came to my mind after a recent project, making a bench based on a sculpture by the artist Richard Tuttle. Basic joinery, box-like construction; I figured I could make it start-to-finish in under a week. And I did, the second time.
Usually I stick with fine furniture hardwoods: oak, ash, cherry, walnut, mahogany. This used all softwoods, fir and pine. Good pine lumber is harder to get now than when the original was made, so I decided to use fir all around. The only thing I knew about fir was that it was like pine but stronger and more stable, the wood of choice to frame houses and build sets. On the east coast it's only available in rough construction grades, but I figured a day with the planer would bring these down to smooth, sharp-edged boards.
I didn't even consider what I would do if I was wrong. And I was.
The wood resisted every attempt to make it flat and straight, as though the tree were getting revenge for being cut down. The planer's razor-sharp blades pulled huge chunks out of the wood no matter how it was fed through the machine, forcing me to scrap multiple pieces. Simple cuts on the table saw tore roughly through the fibers like they were a bundle of hay. My scrap pile grew. The few useable pieces that came out of this process picked up dents so easily I had to pad my workbench.
After more than a week of frustration, I had to admit to myself that this project wasn't going to happen - at least, not like this. If I had to put padding down just to work on it, how the hell would my client be able to use it? Again, my mistake wasn't trying something new. My mistake was assuming this material would work, and buying the full project's worth instead of testing a sample piece first. I trapped myself in a situation where I'd have to labor endlessly over this inferior material, or abandon my progress and start over.
So start over I did, this time with furniture-grade pine from my specialty supplier. After the constant setbacks working with fir, it was almost ridiculously easy. The boards were straight and true, the joints clean and even, and my client was thrilled with the finished product. (Although proud of my work, I'll be happy if I never see the damn thing again for the rest of my life.)
Taking these risks wasn't a mistake, even though both times they ended in failure. The real mistake was being so self-assured that I didn't plan for failure. Confidence needs to be balanced with just a little self-doubt. Not so much that I don't take chances, even reckless ones. Just an addendum to the inner monologue, a voice that says, "I can make this work, but just in case..."