Progress Over Perfection
Back in August 2015, while pulling my kiln and wheel out of storage, I happen to find to see a YouTube video on the topic of learning a particular skill with deliberate practice. In the video “Learn To Kickflip in 5 hours And 47 Minuets.‘ The user Mike Boyd filmed his practice sessions from start to finish, landing a Kickflip. He had no skill of doing this at the start. After watching the video, I felt inspired and tried to focus on progress over perfection.
Progress Through Failure
When I first started making pots again after almost ten years or more, amazingly throwing the first bowl was easy but the next 25 were hard. They would end up collapsing, have thin bottoms, or simply go off center. I had to take a step back and work on the skills separately from step one to finish. First, I practiced centering, a very basic skill that one would learn in a beginner’s class. I found that centering one pound clay pieces were much more challenging than the five pound. Since most of the pots I would be throwing to fill my niche were created from one pound of clay I needed to practice this skill to cut down on time, material waste, and frustration. Needless to say, I ruined many pounds of clay before I was able to achieve my goal. But each time, with each step I was able to have a learning experience built on the failure, to have a centered mound of clay on the wheel. I had to repeat these learning steps through the whole process, from wedging the clay at the start to finishing with a nicely glazed pot. I have to admit the whole experience was quite humbling while remembering just ten years ago when my skill level was much higher. Some days I just wanted to toss the wheel, kilns, and pots in the creek. I had to set the goal of progressing a little each day with one thing, rather than being perfect.
Progress Through Practice
A person can have all the positivity and inspiration in the world, but if they are not progressing then it all is useless. Most ceramic artists and potters can create basic forms on the wheel rather quickly. But being away from ceramics so long I had forgotten how to throw most forms. I had to practice the essential forms that I would be throwing most, which was a simple cylinder shape, for cups, and wider cylinder forms for bowls. I made large amounts of ugly pots, wasted clay trimming heavy pots, cracked pots while loading the kiln, over fired pots, under fired pots, and melted a few kiln shelves. But with the view of progress over perfection I was able to have a somewhat enjoyable time experimenting with different parts of the process to find out what worked and what did not. I also had to practice with the raw materials to see what they could do and how far they could be pushed. One example where this took place was adjusting the glaze recipe for it to work correctly on the clay body I was using. I had to know how each material in the recipe reacted and how they all worked together. There were plenty of online resources to help with this process and having the small kilns I was able to fire out test tiles until I had a result that looked somewhat good. I then was able to practice putting a lot of ugly glaze on a lot of ugly pots. Friends and family thought the were nice and wanted to take them home, but I knew better. I needed more practice and progress over perfection.
Progress Through Time
After all the screw ups, piles of ugly pots, and glaze mishaps, I had to take the time to reflect on what I had learned and scrounge up what appeared to be the best-looking pot and have a drink, relax, and view where I was. Many time this is done easier with a friend, family, or even a stranger. A stranger has much better feedback in my opinion because they are allowed, to be frank and not worried about offending if they have no emotional or family ties. I was able to pass some of these ugly pots around to folks and ask them what they thought and took their opinions and feedback to heart and changed some things I was doing wrong and didn’t know it. Just because I may have thought a form looked correct, that did not mean others thought the same. At times, it can be a very sobering and humbling experience to receive constructive feedback, but over time, it will come, for the better or worse. I also took the time to view the works of other ceramic artists. Applications like Etsy and Instagram were excellent resources to view ceramic art and ideas. I was able to compare and contrast different forms to have a better understanding of what expectations artists and buyers were setting. Seeing the work of others forced me to take the time to look critically at the many processes it takes to create a finished piece and see if I could progress more by building skills in each area which in time would add value to the finished piece.
Unlike the YouTube user Mike Boyd, in the video referenced above, I was not able to complete a pot in five hours and forty-five minutes. I’m not even close after five months. I believe I have progressed. What I thought to be an excellent form last month, I now see maybe it was not. And what I am doing today, I see many opportunity areas in my skill level that needs developing, from wedging the clay to when the customer receives it. For a perfect pot can be created, marketed, and shipped. But if any part of the process is not of the highest quality, the whole chain can be easily broken. Creating a decent pot is only twenty percent of the entire process. I do not know what a perfect pot is, but I am beginning to know what it is not.