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Successful failure

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Today I gave up an almost eight-year long project. I am disappointed to decide that I should not complete it. But though it will remain inned. Incomplete but not a failure.

Eight years ago I wondered: what would a small, guitar-body octave mandolin be like? I love my full-size octave mandolin, and I’ve always loved the guitar body shape. So I set out to determine whether I could build a small size guitar body octave mandolin. The least expensive way to do it was to buy a tenor ukulele kit and set about modifying it. The idea was only proof of concept, but of course I was hoping for a brilliant success.

Now, eight (not continuous) years later, I’ve found the answer. And I found answers to questions that I didn’t know I had. Along the way, I learned new skills and new techniques. I’m deciding to give up producing a completed instrument, but the concept is proven. Along the way I learned a lot of technical lessons, including how to cut out and rebuild a neck joint into an existing instrument. Some day maybe I’ll write about that.

But I wanted to pass on some thoughts on why this was a productive failure, not to be mourned.

1. Remember the goal

My hope was that I would end up with a playable instrument of just the right size, shape and sound. If that was the goal, I failed. But my actual goal was proof of concept: would the small sized guitar body octave mandolin work? Stephen Covey says to “begin with the end in mind.” But the end should always be in mind, even in the end. I realized last night as I stood staring down at the corpse on my workbench that I’d failed only in my hope. I accomplished my goal: I’d proven to myself that such an instrument could be built.

2. Try

As much as I hesitate to disagree with Master Yoda: there must be “try.” One must have the courage to try things that we’ve never tried before. We have to be willing to tempt failure, to try things that are beyond your current skill set. And if the worst comes to worst and the project becomes so shot through by problems that it can’t be saved … there are still things to be learned. I would never have tried to replace a neck joint on a working instrument—but once the neck joint failed, the instrument was a write-off, and it became an opportunity to try something more complex on a project that now couldn’t possibly be ruined!

3. Recognize when it’s time to quit

Pilots talk about “being behind the power curve.” That’s what happens when you’re trying to land and conditions cause you to make a correction … which causes another problem. The correction to that problem causes yet another problem. That correction leads to another problem and another correction. And so on, as the minutes are ticking away, until at last, to save a failure, you have to do something risky to get the wheels down. Getting behind the power curve means losing the ability to make intelligent decisions, and when you lose that ability, you crash.

It takes guts to pull out of a landing pattern and “go around.” But it’s also the counterbalance to “try.” Try, but recognize when it’s time to stop and back away.

Between the two things, there’s certainly a delicate balance. I suggest that the line is here: If the only thing that keeps you from trying is a lack of attainable skills and knowledge, then try. If the reason to quit is that a cascading set of problems keep generating other problems: stop.

4. Celebrate your success … even if it’s a failure

As I stood at my workbench, looking down at my poor lost guitar body octave mandolin, I felt the failure—and the long, lost years—intensely. But I remembered my successes, too. One of the problems with this project from the very beginning was that neck joint was oddly configured. The entire time I worked on the instrument, one problem with the neck lead to another, and another, and another. In the end, what caused me to finally decide that the project needed to be abandoned was the recognition that every fix had led to another problem.

But the fact is: I learned a great deal from trying. Even the central problem—the failed neck joint—taught me an important lesson: that I am capable of cutting the tenon out of a head block and reconstructing a neck. One of the reasons that it took so long to complete this project is that I couldn’t figure out how to do it, or if it was even possible. Now I’ve learned that not only is it possible: I can do it. I’ll do it differently (if God forbid there is ever a necessity to do it again) but I won’t fear doing it, or something similarly complex.

* * *

So, what’s the score? I didn’t produce a beautiful instrument. I did prove my concept. I learned many new skills. I gave myself the confidence to try more difficult wood working than I would have before. And, what the heck, I made a new objet d’art to hang on the wall, and one with an interesting story.

I would call that a successful failure.

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