Making Stuff

There is great pleasure that I cannot describe in using the things I’ve made. Maybe it’s because I am witnessing the history and evidence of my past self, and how considerate I was of my future self. Maybe it’s because I’m interacting actively, not passively with my environment. Or maybe using the things I’ve made confirms my past belief about what I will do, and thus it gives me the confidence to see myself in who I will become.

Making things takes a long time. Holding in my left hand as I type this sentence using my right hand, is a mallet. I am feeling satisfied. This mallet, a functional equivalent of which can be bought at the hardware store for a measly $20, I spent about two and half hours making. In software developer’s wages, that’s more than $100. I enjoyed the time, but I would have enjoyed time making iPhone apps, too.

Unlike software that sort of sits somewhere until it gets used, I feel a strange connection to the past, present and the future. To me, it represents the patience I had to cut down the branches of the tree, bore a hole through the thicker one, and wax the ends. I can see the evidence of human hands that carved the edges of the mallet, and tells a story of how it was made. With a hint of imagination, I can visualize the way the branches sprouted from the earth, fell on its side, and somehow found a new purpose as a tool.

I feel a connection to the present, as the physical sensation of touch and woody smell, the visual patterns in the bark flowing through, in contrast to abrupt forces that it experiences. It reminds me that I am alive and real, participating in the journey that is the gift of life.

I also feel a connection to the future. In examining the purpose of such a mallet, I can see that it can be used to drive other tools into leather and wood. In leatherworking, holes need to be punched into leather before it can be sewn with a needle. I see the circular depressions in the face that reinforces its value as a mass driver. It is valuable because it is capable of producing other goods in the future.

Talking about such a simple object in high regard sounds posh. But to me, it represents the idea that I am able and willing to make way for my future. Who I was, was considerate for who I am now, and who I am is considerate for who I will be.

Perhaps another way to describe such a desire for the future is engineering. Engineering that uses our logical minds is mostly concerned about the future and how to make it better. Through making things, I am empowering myself to experience the never before. If I make a portable chair, I am enabling myself to sit wherever I wish, out in nature. Reading outdoors is fantastic, especially when the author is describing nature, such as Walden by Thoreau. If I make a bookshelf, I am enabling myself to have more space on the desk, and make it easier for me to find the books I’d like to read. Everything I make is a means to an end. Tools.

Everything I make is tools. Bags, cases, watch strap, boxes, water bottle strap. In a way, it’s engineering on a smaller scale. Each object addresses a specific problem. If the problems didn’t exist, then the objects would serve no purpose and would never have come to being. If I never needed to drink water, a water bottle is useless and there would be no need to strap one to my chest. Coming from that perspective, each object arose as a solution. Not only does each object an embodiment of a solution, they are the solution. And each solution provides for as long as the problem persists. I am freed of the bounds of those problems with the objects. Every stitch in my leatherwork gets me closer to freedom. I see the progress and feel the work in my hands.

Each project is a little cycle of product development. I first experience a frustration with my life. That frustration becomes the basis for a problem definition. For example, I was once at Santa Cruz Beach on my motorcycle, and I had to take all the gear that did not fit into my little motorcycle trunk with me to the beach from the parking lot, helmet and all. This is a natural downside to motorcycling, I thought. I don’t have a trunk so I must carry it with me. Too bad, so sad. Then after the beach trip, I came to a thought about a way to lock helmets to the motorcycle without putting it in my trunk. But how about the jacket? Will I carry that with me too, when the trunk is full? That frustration of having to carry two handfulls of stuff re-framed itself as a problem definition, the beginning of a solving process.

To be able to lock both my helmet and jacket to the motorcycle, as to deter thieves.

From the problem definition comes a list of potential solutions:

There is an infinite number of possibilities for solutions for any given problem, but there is often only one optimal way to solve the problem. And for me, it was to buy a cable just long enough to be able to lock both my helmet and jacket. Crimp two loops on the ends, and lock it with a padlock. What would have cost me $40 for a conventional solution, cost me about $5 in materials and a few minutes of my time.

The physical object is the solution and a representation of my problem solving algorithm.

But sometimes I don’t get things right. gasp! I have many failed projects and ugly suboptimal projects. But the failures serve as a reminder to the suboptimal processes that produced them. Making things helps me practice design. I had to learn what sketching means and how to do it. Design as discovery, prototyping, iteration, etc. are lessons that are vaguely described in business meetups and online lectures, but often lost in a sea of ideas in our minds. The lessons never find an anchor to hold onto, and eventually float away into the abyss.

Making things while designing them also forces me to think about purpose. What is the purpose of this bag that I am making? There are a million and one bag designs, and why am I unhappy with Coach/LV/Gucci bags that adorn the endowed children of Vancouver? I knew it wasn’t just connotation. They eat at fancy restaurants that I would like to eat at, and I have no problem with that. To them, a bag is more than a bag. It is a symbol of wealth and disposable income. People recognize those brands as expensive, so if they carry those brands with them, then others must think that they are rich and powerful.

To me, a bag is a way to carry stuff. What it carries is clearly defined before it gets made. For instance, I called one of my bags book-and-lunch bag, so that I know to size it and to build in the carry options. The things I make have a purpose, and the design morphs into the purpose which it was given. The material it’s made from holds the idea together and no part departs from the original purpose.

But designing things that I will use is designing my lifestyle, too. The more things around me that I design, the more I design myself. The more I make, the more I question my own purpose. Why should I work out? Why should I read books? What is my purpose that makes me drive down the west coast of the United States of America down to Los Angeles, spread my chair, and read a poem? What am I making myself into, for what purpose?

Then, the more I use the things I make, the more I find myself enjoying the activities in which my past self allowed me to do. It is a joy of self discovery, learning my preferences in what I want to do. Who I am is what I do.

Ultimately, I make because it makes me happier. It is an expression of my freedom and the expansion of it. The ability to change one’s environment is unique to humans relative to other animals, and the act of that difference, which, from an opposite perspective, is the human condition, makes me more of who I am.

The compliments are nice, when others comment on my hand-made wallet, hand-made pen, hand-made notebook cover, and hand-made sunglasses case. But I sincerely hope that when they look at the things I make, they see beyond the convenience they provide or how much they can be sold for. I hope they see my desire to make my own way.

So, I encourage you to go make stuff, or make stuff happen; even if it is as simple as changing the temperature of your light bulbs in your bedroom for healthier sleep, or changing your morning alarm music to an inspirational speech. If you see how it can be better, make it better. Go.