Why are there wings on a wing chair?

If you’ve ever stopped to consider this question, you’ve likely reached the vague conclusion that wings are decorative. And in the modern sense, they are. We stick wings on everything from recliners to headboards.

(Wing chair recliner reupholstered by Sitzen Design & Upholstery in Missouri)

But in truth, wings were an ingenuous design solution: They created an envelope of protection from cold drafts, trapping warm air around the lucky ducky sitting between them.

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Modern wing chair, reupholstered by Clark’s Fabrication in Michigan

Isn’t that wonderful?

Imagine living in an old, drafty house. Imagine how great that wing chair must have felt in front of a roaring fire. It’s a wonder anyone climbed out long enough to invent central heating.

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Marit from our Wednesday mentorship group, test driving her reupholstered wing chair (insert roaring fire for full effect) 

I can’t remember where I learned this fun tidbit (though I took the time to research and confirm it before writing this post) but I just think it’s fascinating. It’s such a prime example of how furniture design follows function. I think we forget that, sometimes. Aesthetics are only part of the fun.

For the most part, this evolution is subtle – furniture has gradually gotten larger, for example – as have we, as have our homes. You need only travel as far as the nearest antique shop to confirm this.

 

But sometimes furniture takes a quirky turn, reflecting brief, specific moments of strange or forgotten history. Here are three of my favorite examples:

The Fainting Couch:

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Fainting couch restored/reupholstered by Decor Upholstery in Sydney

A petite, asymmetrical sofa style popular with woman in the 19th century. This is – well -exactly what it sounds like . . . though the origins and truth of the style are somewhat muddled.

Some say it was for women who would occasionally faint from their restrictive corsets and delicate nature. Others say it was for treating female hysteria through regular massage with a doctor or midwife.

Why so tense, ladies? I suppose if I had a 16″ corseted waist and no voting rights, I’d want a fainting couch, too. Just bring a glass of wine and shut the door, okay?

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Fabulous updated fainting couch by Desert Canary Design in Texas.

The Courting Bench

Another Victorian gem! This style features two attached seats facing in opposite directions so sweethearts could make eyes without getting too rubby dubby.  Imagine the neighbors gossiping about your premarital hip contact!!!!! The scandal!!!!

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Example featured on Victorian Antiquities and Design 

Although, as noted by Paul Wilham on Victorian Antiquities and Design, “Courting sofa was something of a misnomer as few mothers would dare let a potential caller sit that close to one’s daughter.”

YEAH!!!! What kind of a mother are, anyway?????

This style is also referred to as a kissing bench or a tête-à-tête.

Want to read more? Here’s a fabulous article:   Courting Sofas: Furniture For Wooing Sweethearts in Style  It  includes photos of a 3 person courting chair designed for a rather saucy 20th-century lady, rarrrr!!!!  Don’t lose your invitation to HER party!!!!

The Gossip Bench

This one is my FAVORITE. I don’t hoard antiques, but if I ever have a pole barn, I’m going to fill it with gossip benches: they were a chair with a built-in table for your phone.

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Telephone bench/gossip bench reupholstered by L’atelier du Cap Gris-Nez

Remember that????? Remember when your phone was attached to the WALL?????? At first, we didn’t even have those giant cordless hand helds, or even the super long cord!!!!!!! Forget about multitasking –  If you wanted to talk on the phone, you had to actually sit down and focus. . . Or STAND, I guess, until some genius invented the gossip bench.

A gossip bench was this truly elegant solution to a common inconvenience that is now totally extinct.

I recently took my 11 year old to the Weismann Art Museum. He enjoyed the paintings and sculptures, but what he REALLY wanted to talk about was the phone in their entryway:

“OKAY!!! How does this work?? Do you dial and THEN pick it up? What’s OPER?”

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Studying ancient history at The Weismann Art Museum

Never in his life has he known the inconvenience of standing in one spot to talk on the phone. What on earth would he do with a gossip bench?? Give it to his mom, I guess <3

Join us this week on YouTube to watch Aunt Bea get her wings (and also to see me and The Fabulous Amy Oh go slightly off the rails. It was a long day.)

How do YOU think furniture design has changed in the last 100 years? Where do you think it’s headed next? Drop a comment, here or on Facebook – we’d love to hear your thoughts! 

 

Would you do well at upholstery?

Last week, a woman dropped by The Funky Little Chair to inquire about classes. We answered a bunch of questions, and she started to leave, rather jazzed to give this upholstery thing a try.

Then she turned back and asked, “So what kind of people do well in upholstery? Who ends up really liking it? Is it like a sewing thing? Is it more like manufacturing?”

I LOVED this question! I’m always intrigued to see who sticks around – I’ll tell you, upholstery isn’t always what people expect. Some folks acquire a taste, and others immediately look for a new hobby.

I thought it would be fun to crowdsource this question, so I reached out to some experienced upholstery friends:

What does it take to be successful in upholstery?

It was a wonderful discussion – here are a few of their answers:

Being good with your hands

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“I think you really gotta like working with your hands, because that’s what you’re gonna be doing. And you need strong hands, but I think you can develop that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota

I think this is what draws a lot of folks to upholstery in the first place – we’re increasingly a society of corporate and tech jobs. We sit at a lot of desks. People who come in crave the opportunity to get their hands on something real. But be forewarned:

You can’t be afraid to get dirty and physical.

“It is not a trade for anyone who is afraid to get dirty or get a thousand owies from staples, slivers etc, get glue on your hands, work with dirty disgusting interiors of old furniture.” Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery , Utah

I told our visitor that people often come in expecting home ec, only to discover that class is a lot more like shop: You’re going to get messy. You’re going to get scratched up. You’re going to be tired.  It’s a terrible, wonderful, unavoidable part of the job. (One of my favorite parts, actually)

Understanding physical problems

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“Generally people who understand how things work, and if they don’t they can figure it out.” Kylin Brimhall

“I used to pull the furniture apart to see how it was made. It wasn’t popular.” Michael Tulk 

” Visualizing end product is key and also knowing and understanding 3rd dimensioning, the order of operations.” Davis Bradshawe, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine

“Problem solvers” Louise Turner Cornick, Sitting Pretty Upholstery Services, California

“No two jobs are ever the same. Someone with a creative mind and problem solving skills.” Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney 

So much of upholstery is the ability to READ a project – take apart what’s there and understand how to recreate it. How does this work? If it doesn’t work, why not? Spatial and logical skills are critical, because you can’t find a road map to everything you’ll encounter – you have to apply what you know to whatever you find.

The human brain is a beautiful and amazing thing. Some people are really good math, others at language. Some people understand complex strategy and love chess. Other people will destroy you at Scrabble while you’re busy playing two letter words.

It’s apparent when people dig into a chair that some brains are better wired for deciphering furniture than others. I’m a firm believer that we can learn pretty much anything with enough determination, but natural aptitude certainly doesn’t hurt.

No matter what, don’t make the mistake of expecting a cakewalk:

Being comfortable with struggle:

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“I think you have to be willing to fail. That’s the only way you’re going to learn anything.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota

“It goes beyond class: It’s hours and hours of trial and error and trying again to get it right.”  Tracy Spear, Sew Kewl Upholstery 

“I can envision what I want a piece to be, how it could look and love the process of getting there.  I curse and get angry with every piece and struggle a bit with each one, but the end result is so satisfying, that the bloody fingers, callouses and frustrations and failures are worth it.”  Jennifer Hopkins, West Brome Upholstery, Quebec 

Ugh, the struggle is brutal, and so many new students are caught off guard. If you want to be good at upholstery, there is SO MUCH STRUGGLE between you and that goal.

I remember the year I learned how to sew boxed/welted/cushions – I wanted to have a grown up temper tantrum every time I had to rip out a seam or restitch a corner.

But as the saying goes, “It never gets easier, you just get stronger.”

Struggle is an inevitable part of being successful in upholstery:  You can’t walk around it: You gotta walk through.

Meticulous . . . But not necessarily a diehard perfectionist

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“Attention to detail is a must have!” Kylin Brimhall

“Knowing that there’s no such thing as perfect in upholstery.” Gabrielle Lindberg, Cotton Seed Designs, Minnesota 

Okay, this is a little tricky. Good upholsterers are EXTREMELY detail oriented – but nobody struggles more in our workshops than perfectionists.

There’s a certain amount of letting go in upholstery – it’s subjective, and challenging, and old pieces are often charmingly imperfect. Fabric is naughty, and padding moves. You cannot, must not, be a slob: But if you need everything to add up to complete and total perfection . . . you might want to stick with sudoku.

Creativity, vision and passion

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“I think the human mind likes to create. A lot of jobs don’t allow that.” Amy Otteson, Amy Oh Design, Minnesota 

An artist… If you aren’t creative, you won’t get far.” Davis Bradshaw, Vinyl Destination Upholstery, Maine 

“There are those hard days when the there are so many staples I just can’t even look at another one, dirty discussing fabric and gross stuffing but in the end after tearing everything off I have a blank canvas to create with. Passion is what makes a great upholsterer.” Marianne Funk Henderson 

The woman who stopped by asked, “Is it like manufacturing?” and the answer is unequivocally NO. Unless, I suppose, you upholster in a manufacturing setting, but even then – it’s never a simple as Peg A into Hole B.

Every fabric is different, every chair, every upholsterer. There’s a good deal of interpretation involved, far more than you might expect. Though manufacturers have been amazing at streamlining, upholstery is on the short list of things we haven’t figured out how to automate: There’s an indisputably human element.

Patience

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“Patient, detailed individuals” Don Willis 

“Patience. A willingness to learn, and understanding and acceptance that you’ll never really know it ‘all'” Lindsay Orwig, A Chick and a Chair Upholstery, Minnesota 

“Someone with mass quantities of patience is helpful.” Rob Meyer, Pete’s Auto Upholstery, Florida 

“In my experience people can either visualize in 3D or not. I think that this ability combined with the patience to slowly improve is all you need.” Simon Blackburn, Simon’s Upholstery, Texas

Patience was the single most cited attribute and I couldn’t agree more.

I’m of the mind that upholstery is never really, “mastered” – there’s always room for improvement, always more to be learned or refined. The learning process is lovely, but oh-so-long. Folks who are wired for instant gratification are quickly disappointed.

But patience pays off, and discovering that you’re comfortable with a skill that once eluded you . . . well, it’s delicious, is what it is.

We don’t get there in a hurry, but through patience, practice, creativity, vision, determination, frustration and celebration, we just might get there anyway.

Big thanks to all our articulate upholstery friends for sharing your lovely insights. I’ll leave you with one last quote from my friend Nathan in Australia, because I think it really sums up this craft that we call upholstery:

“A person must be accepting you can never master this trade because it is impossible to recover every variation of upholstered furniture.

You will be taught skills that you add to your experiences, and combined will make your challenges easier to conquer:
Patience and persistence.”

Nathan Spadaro, Decor Upholstery, Sydney 

I couldn’t have said it better myself <3

Want to try upholstery on for size? Check out our upcoming classes: Education

And don’t forget to hop on YouTube and watch our latest chapter on  Reupholster Aunt Bea: Part 5, Front Tackband  

Upholstery: a Little Life Lesson

I think every teacher/artist/athlete/craftsperson sees their “medium” as a metaphor for life. It’s one reason I love quotes – we can all be inspired by the passionate people around us, even those who have passions different than our own.

Some examples:

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Whether you’re a boxer or a welder, a knitter or a chef, the things we do offer opportunities to understand ourselves and our world a little better.

But really? Even upholstery?

Oh yes. Even upholstery.

I feel like I’ve learned all sorts of valuable life lessons at the upholstery shop, but one in particular was rolling around my brain this week. . .

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One tricky aspect of learning and teaching upholstery is that we’re rarely afforded a perfect road map. There are certain subsets of upholstery that may have more repetition (production) or clearer rules (traditional) but if you want definite beginning to end instructions, this upholstery thing is going to be rough, especially at the start.

But here’s the bottom line: You can’t NOT start, just because you aren’t sure where the last staple will go. 

I mean . . . okay, you CAN, but you aren’t going to get very far. 

And if you’re anything like me, maybe that’s something you stumble over in other areas of your life. 

I LOVE to sit around, frozen with uncertainty. OH MY GOOOOOOOOSH!!!!!!! WHAT IF I GO THIS WAY AND I SHOULD HAVE GONE THAT WAY?????? I CAN’T GET STARTED BECAUSE I DON’T HAVE EVERY ANSWER TO EVERY QUESTION I MAY OR MAY NOT RUN INTO!!!!!!!!!!

Upholstery has been good for me in this regard. Will it surprise you to learn that I still feel a flutter of trepidation at the start of a project? I mentioned this last week to The Fabulous Amy Oh – I was just starting these fabulous client chairs:

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There’s always ALWAYS a certain amount of uncertainty . . . or rather, CERTAINTY . . . that I’ll run into little struggles and surprises along the way. I don’t love that. But it’s an unavoidable fact of upholstery, and of the world, and I’d live a pretty small life if I stuck my head in the dirt and tried not to run into trouble.

Usually, once I get to work, solutions present themselves. I can figure out a lot by rolling up my sleeves and digging in.

It certainly works a lot better than sitting at home worrying about it. 

And what if I have to try a few solutions to get a winner? And what if I have to call a trusted mentor? And what if I have to pull an arm off and start over?

What if, what if, what it???

I recognize these same worries in students all the time. They walk to their chair with a piece of fabric . . . and immediately freak out. The inside arm, which we’re tackling on Aunt Bea this week, is a great example. WATCH THE VIDEO

Before the first tentative staple goes in, people start panicking about the pleats – THE PLEATS! THE PLEEEEEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAATS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHH WHAT ABOUT THE PLEEEEEEAAAAAAATS?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Listen up:

Chill out.

We’ll talk about the pleats when we get there. And we’ll figure them out. But put that worry in a drawer, and let’s just figure out where to start. Okay, now let’s figure out where to go next. And next. And next.

When you’re doing something new, you probably don’t have a clear path forward. But can you identify a good first step?

Let’s get all Inception up in here and consider a metaphor inside of our metaphor: 

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It’s like standing in the fog. You can only see a couple of steps in any direction. But guess what? Once you take a couple steps, you’ll probably see a couple more.

Maybe you’ll go the wrong way and have to go back. So what? At least you discovered a path that doesn’t work.

Maybe you’ll run into someone and have to ask for directions. So what? Maybe that someone knows a destination even better than the one you were headed for.

But one thing’s for sure: You’ll never get anywhere, standing around squinting at the woods. Take it from good ol’ Teddy Roosevelt: 

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And anyway, few destinations are reached by the shortest distance possible: The fog of my upholstery career is crisscrossed with footsteps in every conceivable direction. But every misstep has taught me something valuable, so in the end were they really missteps at all?

Here’s another quote to chew on:

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Isn’t that a wonderful way to frame the journey?

Now, I’m not necessarily saying that we need to learn EVERYTHING the hard way – I’m delighted that someone else invented the lightbulb, so I can just come home and enjoy it.

Likewise, I’m happy to share everything I’ve tried with students so that they don’t have to discover every single misstep for themselves. And I’m glad that others have done that for me.

But there IS great value in giving yourself permission to move forward without a perfect plan.

And there’s even greater value in trusting your future self to figure the rest out.

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You said it, Steve.

Head to YouTube and subscribe to follow Aunt Bea on her journey! 

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Do You Upholster the Right Way?

Alright, that title is deliberate upholstery click bait. . . But I want to tell you something, and please bear with me.

Here’s a secret truth about upholstery:  It’s really, really, really, really easy to tear someone’s work apart.

I don’t mean in the literal sense. I mean figuratively. If I were inclined to do so, I could walk into any shop in the world INCLUDING MY OWN and find something to criticize. It would take very little effort, very little imagination.

That’s because upholstery is not only extremely challenging: it’s also (another secret truth) extremely subjective. Guaranteed, my idea of “perfect” isn’t the same as yours or the upholsterer down the street.

Last week, I had a 20 minute conversation with a client about 3 pillows. Where should the zippers go? What stripe should we center on? What direction should the welt cord go? I usually make my covers slightly smaller than the inserts, was she good with that, or had she anticipated leaving with 16″ covers? I was happy to share my thoughts, but it the end, it was HER idea of “perfect” that mattered.

And while I’m at it, here’s another thought: Is “perfect” even a thing in upholstery? To be honest, I don’t think so. At least, I’ve never achieved it, and people tell me I’m pretty good (awwwww)

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On any day of the week, on any given project, I could list a dozen tiny things I wish I could have done JUST a little better.

There’s ALWAYS something.

So what we do, unless you hide in a closet and never share your work . . .  it leaves you pretty wide open to criticism.

I don’t know about you, but I find that scary.

The reason I’m writing about this now is because of Aunt Bea. When I teach, I make decisions based primarily on what’s quantifiable – I want to make skills as structured and straightforward as possible, especially if I’m introducing them to someone for the first time (or trying to shoehorn them into a video format)

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For one of my advanced students, or for a client, there would have been extra considerations, bits and tweaks and additional steps.

So I’m feeling a tad vulnerable,  you see.

I have put something out there, very publicly, that’s not quite up to my own “professional standards.” For good reasons, yes yes!  But nonetheless, there it is, at 3am, making me all kinds of crazy, wondering who’s going to show up and shred me in the comments.

Now I didn’t get on here to whine about my insecurities – we’re learning to get along just fine. But it really got me thinking. . .

If I’ve been at this for almost 2 decades and I’ve had a lot of great teachers and loads and loads of practical experience. . . . If I’M feeling vulnerable, how the heck are people feeling that are just starting out? Maybe people who are mostly self-taught? People without access to mentors or degree programs or regular hands-on education? Because that’s a lot of people!!!!! And we need these people to keep learning!!!!!!

So here’s my point:

For Pete’s sake, BE NICE TO EACH OTHER!

I want to scream it from the rooftops. STOP TEARING PEOPLE DOWN ON SOCIAL MEDIA!!!!

Stop acting like there’s only one RIGHT way!!!!

Now I’m not talking about condoning low standards. What I AM talking about is not shutting down the conversation by being a grade A snob.

My skills have never improved because someone made me feel stupid and inexperienced. Never. Never ever. Not even once.

But my skills have repeatedly improved because someone made me feel comfortable asking questions. My skills have improved because I was inspired by the example of someone else’s exceptional work and approachable disposition. My skills have improved because someone else believed I was capable of improving.

Many of those someones are members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota. I joined with my mom’s shop in 2001. She was self taught, and it was my first encounter with other professionals. Scary.

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Members of the Professional Upholsterers’ Association of Minnesota

They could have been jerks. They could have made us feel very small, and very amateurish (many of the members had graduated from upholstery degree programs while they were still an option in Minnesota. Several had even been instructors.)

If they had, that would have likely been the end of my upholstery career.

But they didn’t. And it completely changed the trajectory of my life.

My workmanship has steadily improved through access to a supportive, experienced group of professionals. I’ve gone to them with every manner of question, from minute technical questions, to big philosophical business questions. I continue to reach out to mentors within that group when I need a trusted perspective.

And it opened my eyes to how little we really agree on in upholstery.

Truly, it’s wild.

Going in, I was afraid that everyone would know “The right way” except us. Ha!

I’ve seen spirited debates on everything from how to thread your sewing machine, to whether you should put batting on the sides of a cushion. It’s bananas. If you’re ever bored, go to a meeting and throw in a little conversation bomb, some seemingly innocent starter like, “I prefer synthetic burlap.” Then kick back and enjoy.

At one of the first meetings I attended,  a potentially contentious debate started up about whether to bias cut your welt cord.

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ALWAYS!!!

ALMOST NEVER!!!!!

And I remember then-president Paul Henly of Regal Design Studio calmly diffusing the situation with a simple observation. “There are good reasons to do it either way.”

That was it!!!!! We didn’t take a vote to decide who was right!!!!!!

THEY BOTH WERE!!!

And seriously, they were – both members were experienced and knowledgable. Among other things, they knew what was working best for them, for their clients, their typical workload (I think one was primarily residential, one primarily marine.)

But that moment rather shaped my philosophy.

The more I learn, the less likely I am to use words like, ALWAYS, NEVER or RIGHT.

I have very few hard and fast rules in upholstery. Usually, as soon as I think of one, I think of a situation where I’d make an exception.

Now, when I teach, I use words like USUALLY, GENERALLY, and TYPICALLY followed by, “And this is why.”

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Teach the reason. Open the dialogue. Give students room to explore. Try to cultivate an open and inquisitive mind.

Because I think that’s the most important thing.

When we talk about “The right way” I think, ‘Are you making informed decisions?’ ‘Are your decisions MORE informed than this time last year?’ ‘Are you continually reevaluating yourself to see if there might be a better way?’ ‘Are you making the best possible decisions for your client based on your current skill set, your level of experience, the best products you have available, their individual needs?’

Are you reaching out to all available resources to be the best upholsterer you can possibly be?

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Tuesday Mentorship group learning from PUAM president, Diana Shroyer-Guenther (pictured with Amy Otteson and Lindsay Orwig)

And here’s where we all (hopefully) help. If someone goes out on a limb, shares their work, their initial accomplishments, their perceived successes and failures  – if they are met with disdain and judgement and scorn, will they go out on that limb again? Or did they just learn not to ask any more questions?

I know we’ve covered this: I don’t think upholstery is a dying industry.

But a lot of people do.

And maybe the most dangerous thing we can do is knock each other down.

Our enemies are uninformed consumers, and cheap new furniture. Our enemies are people turning out low quality work for lack of good education and networking. Our enemies are all the reasons people choose not to reupholster.

Let’s not make enemies of one other.

When it comes to keeping upholstery alive, a rising tide lifts all ships. We are in this together, y’all. The more students, professionals and consumers who understand and appreciate what we do, the better it will be for all of us.

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So that’s my big idea:

Be nice.

Be great at what you do.

And be humble.

I don’t suppose it will save the world. . .  But it certainly can’t hurt.

“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Mark Twain

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